In one Internet minute there are 2.4 million Google search questions asked, 20.8 million WhatsApp messages sent, more than half a million Snapchat photos shared and 51,000 apps downloaded from the Apple App Store.

All in one minute!  

Digital innovation – including advances in computing, networks, mobile devices and the capabilities they unleash such as apps, cloud computing and data analytics – is an unstoppable force, with Australia’s digital economy expected to continue to grow significantly over the coming years fuelled by new waves of technological developments. 

Deloitte Access Economics forecasts growth in the digital economy to rise from $79 billion in 2014 to $139 billion in 2020, which would see it increase to 7 per cent of Australia’s gross domestic product (up from 5 per cent). 

Researchers have a huge amount to gain from engaging with social and digital media in various aspects of their work.

Social media platforms and digital collaboration tools are now a staple of many researchers’ practices and have brought new dimensions to problem solving, results sharing, data collection and analysis. 

The almost limitless ability, in both quantity and form, to distribute information – coupled with the public’s growing desire to consume that content digitally, to share it and respond to it – has provided enormous opportunities for citizen science researchers like UniSA’s Dr Philip Roetman.

In 2013, Dr Roetman established the Discovery Circle initiative that has now engaged many thousands of participants of all ages. 

The key to this initiative is a citizen science approach, where members of the community actively contribute to research alongside professional scientists. 

Discovery Circle projects utilise a variety of online and mobile applications, including GPS units to track pet cats, mobile apps to record wildlife sightings, smartphones to capture images of local landscapes, and bespoke software to help members of the community share their knowledge and ideas. 

“One of the reasons that citizen science is flourishing is because these days most people are carrying around in their pocket something that is capable of taking a photograph, taking a GPS location and doing all sorts of audio and video recordings,” Dr Roetman says.

“Smartphones significantly streamline the information collection process because it is so easy for community members to submit records, sightings and data online and in a form that is easy for scientists to work with.

“Communicating results back to the community is also fast-tracked and the depth of data that can be collected with a GPS, photos or apps is just incredible.”

Another UniSA researcher who is making the most of digital technology is Dr Carol Maher, Senior Research Fellow in UniSA’s School of Health Sciences, who finds digital platforms faster, wider-reaching, easier to achieve and more efficient than more traditional methods. 

Dr Maher is leading a project using an app to harness the power of friendship to increase physical activity.

“We created an app called ‘Active Team’ where users invite Facebook friends to join their team in a physical activity challenge, using a pedometer to track and increase their exercise,” Dr Maher says.

“The great thing is that a team captain signs up friends from their already established networks making it more likely for participants to influence each other’s behaviours because we know that social influence is stronger among family and friends.

“The use of technology and social media has provided benefits. Results are more readily available and less ongoing input is needed by a health professional. But it’s not an easy process. 

“The process of developing technology is challenging. Software development takes a long time and it is expensive, but once it’s rolled out, it becomes quite easy because it is all automated.

“Having said that, keeping pace with new versions of the technology is a real challenge for us. We can have our software working one day and then the next it’s not because something has changed on the phone or within Facebook settings.”

Digital engagement is well and truly being led by the extensive use of smartphones and tablets. Society’s constant companion, smartphone sales last year reached 1.4 billion, an increase of 14.4 per cent from 2014.

And the use of apps – digital shortcuts designed for accomplishing specific tasks – is most prevalent among the younger generation who have grown up with mobiles and tablets.

Students now have access to more information than ever before, are increasingly mobile and globally connected, have diverse needs, and require flexibility to balance work, family and study commitments.

UniSA’s student app was an idea put forward at the University’s first unijam in 2013, and was initially going to be a joint project between Corporate Information Systems and the Library team, until Senior Lecturer in the School of Information Technology and Mathematical Sciences, Dr Jing Gao suggested students should design and make it.

“It seemed obvious that UniSA students should develop the app for students,” Dr Gao says.

“We put together a collaboration team to outline the requirements, canvassed students to see what they needed the app to do and then final year undergraduate students in the School of Information Technology and Mathematics designed the app and wrote the code.

“The value of an app is in its functionality for a targeted group, so a student app developed by students is going to have maximum value.

“If we had just created something internally and given it to the students I am sure we wouldn’t have had the buy-in that we’ve had with them being engaged with every stage of the process.”

The UniSA App can be used by prospective students to enquire about careers and studies, by current students during their study and can be accessed by alumni to maintain engagement with the University into the future, and has been downloaded more than 25,000 times.

One of the students on the app design and coding team, Shaun Byrne, is now employed by UniSA to oversee its maintenance.

He says the process of packaging the app and submitting it to the app stores was more difficult than the actual development of the app.

“There are just so many steps and things you need to worry about,” Byrne says.

“The UniSA App has been a big success though with anywhere between 500 and 1500 sign-ins on average per day.

“I often wonder what the app might have looked like if it was designed and built by outside engineers – I can only imagine how different it would have been if students weren’t involved.”

The digital revolution in higher education is certainly full-steam ahead as new and emerging technologies are increasingly used in all aspects of life, work and study. 

Connect with:
Dr Philp Roetman:
The Alliance for Research in Exercise, Nutrition and Activity: @ARENA_UniSA