Innovative research helping mobile apps pass the ‘Toothbrush Test’

The powerful combination of real world know-how and deep research from academia.

Published on 2nd February 2016 by Jonathan Ginn

Last week I was invited to represent Base at a Bournemouth University event called ‘Digital Sandpit’. The focus was on the future of the digital economy and its rapid growth in technology and creativity both in the UK and globally, focused around the idea of what Marty McFly might need to cope in the world 25 years from now.

I was invited to speak from Base and I was pleased to see talks from Bournemouth Borough Council, LV and Barclays, all organisations that are embracing change and the challenges that the fast moving digital world will bring in the future.

During my talk I shared the work Base has done to support the local digital economy as well as our forward thinking work in transport with Passenger, including our partnership with Bournemouth University’s Data Science Institute. The talk gave everyone a great insight into our work and kickstarted some valuable discussions about user privacy and protection of data especially around the avenues of our work with Gaze Detection.

One key approach we take at Base is aiming to pass the ‘Toothbrush Test’, a criteria by Larry Page. The test is “Do you use it 1 or 2 times daily, and does it make your life better?” If a product doesn’t achieve that criteria as a minimum, then what’s the point? This is a phrase many of the academics got behind and loved using!

Attendees represented a fantastic mix of different areas of the University, from law and IP, marketing, sports development, digital health and psychology. This meant every discussion topic was varied and interesting across multiple fields of expertise.

We discussed what the future of the digital economy will throw at us, from a cultural, psychological and health perspective, identifying the issues that may come out of a hyper-connected globe.

These issues included the digital-work-life balance, protecting user privacy, and handling copyright of film/music across borders.  We discussed how family and home life may change in the digital age and how best to educate children about the dangers of sharing your whole life publicly on the internet. We discussed the issues around a connected person, and how that may have a negative impact on someone’s mental health.

If Marty McFly arrived 25 years from now, he would be a digital ghost – with no history online he may find it hard to get a job, bank account, or even make friends. If the digital world becomes all-encompassing, then it may prove hard for people to ‘stay off the grid’.

A key area of interest for me was the discussion around joining the dots between data streams of users, so that each user can be given a picture of their health – based on a combination of their FitBit, Strava and other fitness data, for example. Academia can help navigate the complicated commercial ground (where each corporation wants to protect its collection of data and their bottom line) and protect core privacy when corporations and startups share user data.


The name of a ‘sandpit’ was very accurate – at every stage it was a maelstrom of post-it notes and pens as people scrambled down ideas and concepts. The process was democratic, allowing people to post their burning thoughts up and provoke discussion, as well as regular ‘Soapbox’ sessions that would allow 2 minutes on any topic for the soapboxer. By the end of the day we’d collectively identified common issues and come up with research topics.

Other activities included describing objects and how they may contribute to solving issues we had previously described. Many of the tasks didn’t always make sense at the time but prompted wild and active discussion which led to great ideas and starting points.

After day one, we had a morning to develop and refine our initial goals, and present them to the rest of the groups. Two ideas remained by day two, and we posed our positive thoughts and concerns of each group’s approach. These ideas were:

Life Logging

With a strong background in sports development and psychology as well as app development, The team I was in gathered around the concept of an app to consolidate all of your life streams (location, FitBit steps, heart rate) into one centralised system, combining it with your mood via daily questions. The system would then use machine learning to provide personal coaching.

The outcomes for our group was to investigate funding, and discuss co-operation with the Data Science Institute within BU as data handling and machine learning is a core aspect of our research.

Blurred Lines

With an internal skillset in ‘digital health’ and HR experience, the second team focused on the work-life balance, with its increasingly blurred lines between when people should not be working. Up until now, no study has been done into the damage of ‘attention thieves’ like social media on workplace productivity nor into the intrusion of work email in a home setting.

It poses questions like whether preventing access to social media improves or reduces employee stress levels and productivity. One of the great difficulties in why such a study hasn’t taken place yet is that often companies don’t want disruption from such research.

Luckily one member of their team was from LV, so this research topic can hopefully be investigated from within a large company conveniently nearby. It’s a great opportunity to improve employee retention and mental wellbeing.


The outcome of the day and a half for both projects was to keep discussion going around our research topics, including exploring funding opportunities to help support further research and development.

At Base we value our links with academia highly – our Knowledge Transfer Partnership with the Data Science Institute has been running for over 3 months now, and has been a refreshing experience for everyone. Real world know-how from a fast moving industry combined with deep research and forward-thinking analysis from academia is a great combo, and one I’ve seen again this week at this event.


Published on 2nd February 2016

Developer Evangelist

Jonathan Ginn