Use sensors to improve Dutch people’s health

/ Author: Jaap van Sandijk
How can we make smarter use of technology in Dutch health research? This is the central question in the lectureship Smart Sensor Systems, established recently at The Hague University of Applied Sciences (THUAS) in collaboration with Statistics Netherlands (CBS), the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) and Utrecht University (UU). Professor John Bolte presented the inaugural lecture on smart sensor technology last 1 February. ‘The use of sensors in measurements opens up an incredible range of possibilities,’ he says.

Improve the quality of data

Sensors are becoming ever more affordable and lightweight. As such, they are used more and more for research as tiny measuring instruments. This is good news, as smart sensor technology makes it possible to improve the quality of data and reduce the burden on respondents. ‘What used to be researched in the form of survey questionnaires can now be measured more objectively using sensors,’ explains Bolte. ‘We already have things like motion measurement systems and activity trackers, for example, but we will see more devices in the future, e.g. to gauge food intake.’ Professor Bolte, who works for RIVM as a physicist cum epidemiologist, also sees new opportunities for CBS: ‘CBS is seeking ways to perform measurements among large groups of people. Small sensor systems can play an important role in this respect.’


The Smart Sensor Systems lectureship is focused on the development of sensors and establishing sensor networks. The aim is to help people and devices take the right decisions. ‘It’s all about prevention through prediction,’ Bolte explains. The lectureship involves a partnership among several research institutes in various projects; citing an example, Bolte mentions a study on working conditions among road workers and construction workers, conducted in partnership with RIVM and TNO. Workers were equipped with sensors in order to measure the variety in exposure to noise and particulates in each situation. ‘At the moment, we are setting up the framework for a study on the influence of food on irritable bowel syndrome. This involves tracking food intake, the expansion of the bowels and type of bowel motions. Eventually, people will be able to receive dietary advice based on the results.’

The Sensor Data Challenge was such a good experience that the cooperating parties want to make it an annual event

Fusion of specialisms

The strength of the collaboration between CBS, RIVM and UU lies mainly in the fusion of specialisms, says Bolte. ‘The development of sensor systems lies primarily with THUAS, the social questions fall under RIVM, and the accuracy of measurements lies with CBS and UU. The latter two are specialised in data collection methodology and statistics, and have large amounts of datasets at their disposal.’ The large student bodies at UU and THUAS also play an important role: ‘They are involved in the surveys and can share their knowledge with the new generations.’ The cooperating parties kicked off with a 24-hour Sensor Data Challenge event, which was held last November at CBS in The Hague. Participants were challenged to invent smart ways of using sensors to measure people’s health, lifestyle and living conditions. ‘That was a promising start of this smart collaboration,’ adds an enthusiastic Bolte.

Objective measurement

Bolte describes the cooperation with CBS as excellent. ‘An important person in this respect is CBS senior methodologist Barry Schouten, professor in Methodology and Statistics at Utrecht University. Whereas THUAS focuses primarily on measuring, CBS is concerned with the reliable processing of these measurements. Objective measurement is a key mission in this collaboration, both for us and for CBS.’ The Sensor Data Challenge was such a good experience that the cooperating parties want to make it an annual event. In addition, Bolte would like to introduce annual themes for the collaboration project. ‘A Year of Movement for example, during which we can work on improving measurement of movement activities.’

Prevention through prediction, measure what is measurable

In his inaugural speech last 1 February on prevention through prediction, Bolte advocated targeted measuring: ‘First, think carefully what you want to measure, then use as few meters as possible,’ he suggests. Bolte believes we need to resist the temptation to collect as many data as possible: ‘It is becoming ever easier and cheaper to measure things, but processing the data is very expensive. This involves transportation and storage of data, plus issues such as cyber security and data privacy. So think carefully beforehand which question you want to get answers to. Don’t rush into measuring things at random. This was the key message in my inaugural lecture.’