Developing a Flexible App Data Collection Tool for Substance Use Research

Project Title: Developing a Flexible App Data Collection Tool for Substance Use Research
PI name(s): Maureen Walton, , Susan Murphy
Co-I name(s): Rebecca Cunningham, , Predrag Klasnja, Ambuj Tewari


To date, there are two evidenced-based apps addressing substance use. A-CHESS is efficacious in reducing relapse in adults discharged from addiction treatment settings (Gustafson et al.,0142 ) and ESQYIR is efficacious in reducing relapse among adolescents discharged from addiction treatment settings (Gonzales et al., 2015). Although promising, these apps do not include data collection tools and require a therapist to deliver content and cannot be easily modified by researchers without background programming increasing cost to each project. In contrast, our app will include a dashboard that can be customized by any staff to collect data relevant for various researchers without needing to build in cost for re programming code for each study. Key game like environment will harness intrinsic motivation, using knowledge gap and boredom susceptibility theories to reinforce engagement without contamination of behavioral outcomes measured. The app will allow for add-on components for intervention delivery including marching learning text messaging and YouTube-styled intervention videos.

Thus, the purpose of this pilot study is to conduct focus groups to optimize the content and features of this APP during the development phase, to maximize participant retention in data collection. In addition, we will conduct focus groups to develop a prototype intervention to prevent initiation and escalation of drug use among adolescents and emerging adults. We will recruit youth in the Ann Arbor area using Facebook to participate in focus groups to iteratively refine the app.


Substance use among adolescents and emerging adults remains an alarming public health issue, associated with the leading causes of death including injury. Mobile apps are a promising data collection tool for understanding the initiation and escalation of drug use among youth, collecting data as youth go about their daily lives. Despite the recent progress in sensor technologies, many relevant health data can be only captured with manual input. A common problem of manual logging is users often disengage within a short time because of high burden.  In this pilot study, we proposed the development of SARA, a novel app to engage users with ongoing tracking.

A key innovation of our app is that it employs a number of novel engagement strategies, including creating a game-like environment, which will address this critical barrier. SARA is an application developed for adolescents and emerging adults with risky substance use. The goal is to capture substance use data for extended periods of time in order to inform the longer term development of just-in-time adaptive interventions (JITAIs) to alter escalating substance use trajectories among youth. The key innovation of SARA is the multitude of different theoretically based rewards it provides to keep youth engaged in data collection, which could later be applied to engagment with intervention content delivered via the SARA app. These rewards are both culturally relevant and theoretically grounded. Thus, this pilot study aimed to develop and refine a prototype app for data collection among adolescents and emerging adults.

We conducted focus groups with 21 University of Michigan undergraduates (ages 18-21) in Spring 2017 and pilot tested an Android version of the app with 21 emerging adults (ages 18-24) recruited from the UM Emergency Department in Summer 2017.  We modified the second aim to conduct a pilot micro-randomized controlled trial to measure the efficacy of the engagement strategies on data collection adherence using SARA. The public health impact of SARA, to better understand substance use and associated risk behaviors including injury, as well as to deliver content, in an easily modifiable platform is high, with application across other health behaviors.