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People Behind the Council of Coaches – Episode 1

In the summer of 2016, researchers from the University of Twente and Roessingh Research and Development teamed up in a brainstorming session to think about the then published call for proposals of the European Commission on “Personalised coaching for well-being and care of people as they age”. After this brainstorming session the idea of a virtual group – a council – of coaches that accompany people on the road to healthy ageing, was born. The researchers found inspiration in the video game series “Civilization”, in which a so-called “High Council” would advise players in a comical way on their next move in a turn-based strategy game. The work started on the Council of Coaches proposal, which led in January 2017 to the project proposal being submitted to the European Commission, and then started the long wait…

Figure: The “Council” from Civilization II, by MicroProse (1996).

For the people, by the people…

The “Council of Coaches” project aims to develop a service that can assist people in leading a healthy lifestyle. For such a user-oriented project to reach its goal, we need to reach out and listen to our audience. But we consider it equally important that our audience can reach out to us. In this series of articles, we would like to let you know the people behind the Council of Coaches. To tell their stories, their motivations, their experiences and what drives them to develop the next level in health and well-being technologies.

The University of Twente

In this first article, we would like to introduce to you the team working at the University of Twente in Enschede, the Netherlands. The University’s Centre for Monitoring and Coaching is the coordinating partner of the project and brings in expertise from the biomedical and Human-Computer Interaction domains.

First up, let’s meet Professor Hermie Hermens, as one of the founding fathers of the multidisciplinary Centre for Monitoring and Coaching and Professor in the university’s Biomedical Signals and Systems group, Hermie is the Coordinator of the Council of Coaches project. Hermie has a long-standing track record in the field of biomedical engineering and Telemedicine and can be characterized by a firm belief and strong passion for creative, innovative ICT as a driver for future healthcare.

“The Council of Coaches project takes a radically new approach to coaching people, utilising the latest developments in sensing, artificial intelligence and user interaction. Although we have set ourselves a very challenging goal, our consortium is ideally suited to tackle this challenge and to deliver solutions that can be implemented in the daily-life of people suffering from chronic conditions.”

The University of Twente contributes to the Human-Computer Interaction aspects of the project through Dirk Heylen and his team at the Human Media Interaction group. Dirk is computational linguist by nature and currently holds the position of Professor in Socially Intelligent Computing. Anything involving humans, virtual agents, robots and how these interact with each other through conversation sparks Dirk’s interest.

“I’ve been working on conversational agents now for almost 20 years in many local and international projects. The Council of Coaches project offers the possibility to investigate more deeply what it means for a person to interact with a virtual coach as we will look into a company of coaches. Besides team members that I have been working with in projects for over more than a decade, it is a pleasure to work with new highly qualified groups on topics such as argumentation and dialogue. I also very much enjoy the variety of scholarly perspectives on the problem, including the time we will spend on the reflection about responsible innovations.”

Working on both the biomedical engineering and human computer interaction sides, the University of Twente has a broad team of experts involved in the project. Oresti Baños, Assistant Professor of Creative Technology, defines himself as being a

“strong advocate of the role of science in society and truly passionate about the use of technology for social good”

When asked about his involvement into Council of Coaches, he underlines: “through this project, we will be able to improve our broad understanding of human behaviour and give people more tailored, personalized, and effective health interventions.”


Kostas Konsolakis – a PhD candidate at the Biomedical Signals and Systems group of the University of Twente, working closely together with Oresti – believes in the good that technology can do for society. He says that from when he started his Master in Biomedical Engineering, his main goal has been to become an expert in the area of wearable (health) technology and personalised health solutions with coaching systems.

“Just imagine the benefits from receiving coaching services through a portable device…”

Kostas adds, that our quality of life has the potential to improve immensely thanks to a coaching service like the Council of Coaches.

For those less familiar with terms like “wearable health technology”, think of the fancy bracelets that measure your steps, monitor your sleep patterns, and that connect to your smartphone to see if you did enough exercise for the day. That is it. Expand the data that you monitor (heart rate and stress for example) use it for medical reasons and to conduct a healthy life, and you have a wearable medical piece of technology. Once you connect somehow this piece of technology to a group of experts giving you hints to have a healthy lifestyle, you have a coaching system.

Another important focal point of the project is that ageing should not be conceived as something negative. Gerwin Huizing, PhD candidate of the Human Media Interaction group, who has a geriatric specialist in his family, has an entire life-time of experiences in contact with older adults. He has seen what it is living as a healthy active older adult, and wishes to see this more often. He has acquired a peculiar point of view: that of the older adults, and feels he has a better understanding of their lives, desires and needs. Gerwin is one of those many people who give their support to those in need through voluntary work. In particular, he helped older adults and people with symptoms of dementia, and realised how often there is lack of caregivers, volunteers and support for these people. So, what he wants now, is to use his knowledge to develop a technological product that fits the needs and points of view of the older adults, and that provides them with a form of social interaction and the possibility to stay active and healthy. This possibility Gerwin found in working on the Council of Coaches project.

Randy Klaassen, assistant professor at the Human Media Interaction research group (involved in studies related to virtual humans, virtual coaching, dialogues, and user centred design), says it straight: ageing should not be seen per se as a negative step in life. Furthermore, technology could help high tech people not lose human touch, and thus,


“face-to-face and human-to-human interaction is important to integrate into the healthcare solutions of the future”

Finally, Jorien van Loon. She has been working at the University of Twente as a project manager for EU projects for the last 8 years. As a project manager she supports the project coordinator in his day to day activities. For Council of Coaches this means, establishing procedures for Risk identification and Quality Management, setting up a Data Management Plan, and anything else that is necessary to run smooth project. Besides the management tasks she is appointed as the work package leader for WP9: Ethics. With her background in Computer Science, Philosophy of Technology, and additional experience in the ethical committee of the EEMCS faculty, she is very familiar with establishing ethical treatment of patients and ensuring their privacy will be kept within the project.

“I have great confidence in the Council of Coaches project. It is one of the few projects where technical specifications go hand in hand not only with end user requirements, but with responsible research and ethical considerations as well. The consortium is well rounded to tackle these challenges and I am looking forward to working together with everyone to come up with something truly innovating.

To conclude, the large and diverse team at the University of Twente is excited to bring the Council of Coaches to life! Follow the journey with us, and get to know the rest of the people behind the project in the coming posts.

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What’s this all about?! An example coaching dialogue…

The main objective of this website is to show you, the reader, what we are doing in the Council of Coaches project. To illustrate the objective of the project a little better, we are working on improving our website to be more illustrative and informative. Today we’ve updated our Project page with some example dialogue that hopefully clarifies what we have in mind when we are talking about a “Council of Coaches”.

Consider the example dialogue below between four virtual coaches and a fictive user “Bob”…

Alice: Have you considered trying to quit smoking, Bob?
Ben: Quit smoking… quit drinking, quit doing all the fun things in life! Why don’t you quit whining?
Florence: What a stupid thing to say, Ben! Next thing you’re going to tell us all about your grandfather who smoked all of his live and lived to be a 100 years old!
Ben: Well, for your information… Florence. My grandfather was a heavy smoker and he did turn out to be 94 years old, so there.
Richard: Florence, Ben, cut it out, this isn’t about you or your grandfather, we are talking about Bob, perhaps he has anything to say here?
Bob: (Say Nothing)
Alice: Well, you know that smoking does not guarantee an early death. But Bob here recently got diagnosed with COPD, a condition that is almost always caused by long-term smoking. Although it may not be easy, it is very important to try and quit as a very first step in dealing with this.
Ben: Sure, I guess, you are the expert.
Richard: And it has a positive effect on your taste! Think about all the delicious things we could cook together and how excellent all the flavors will work out.
Bob: I am trying but find it difficult.


What this example portrays, is that even without any active participation of the user (e.g. the point where Bob chooses to say nothing), the discussion can continue with some arguments and background on the topic of smoking cessation. At the end of the example, when the user finally becomes engaged (“I am trying but find it difficult.“), our COPD Coach, Alice, will have to opportunity to continue the dialogue with e.g. advice on how to stop smoking.

I hope this example clarified some our thoughts behind the project. Stay tuned for more updates…

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Platform Webinar

In Council of Coaches we are trying to be efficient in our software development and not re-invent the architectural wheel again. At this early stage of the project, we have been exploring two major software frameworks that see a lot of interest and use in the eHealth domain: FiWARE and universAAL. Below, you can watch the FIWARE and universaal Platform Webinar, hosted and presented by Álvaro Fides Valero of the Polytechnic University of Valencia.

Check back here for more video comment, or subscribe to our YouTube Channel.

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Digitalizing health: safety concerns and the Coaches’ answer. The doctors in our pockets.

Some advertisements claim that digital solutions will “put the doctor in your pockets”. This is indeed, the era of the digital transformation, in which technology puts diverse types of services in the hands of internet users – now half of the world population, to give a hint on the size of the matter – regardless of how far from the provider they are, and how complex and delicate the service is. The digital fever became so spread that some have become concerned with elements such as regulations, data protection and quality of services offered through digital tools. And a particular spot in this discourse, is taken by health and the so-called eHealth and mHealth services.
Confronted with the huge and growing number of digital medical apps appearing on the scene, the discourse over their quality, efficiency and safety, is spreading, and national and local authorities around Europe are appointing committees to check and classify medical apps, so to provide users with records of those that give good clinical evidence and services (e.g. the Agency of Sanitary Quality of Andalucía, ES, and the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency). But this control system encounters a few obstacles to efficiency. It is not clear based on what elements these authorities choose the apps they will check. It seems that those giving just general advices, do not need any certification, yet they might be giving advices impacting on delicate medical scenarios. Furthermore, this system of check-up and life-style improvement offers no comparison between how doctors would have made diagnosis and recommendations, and how the app did. Therefore, risks of errors remain high, and in the absence of cross-checking.
The Council of Coaches comes as a revolution in the digital transformation, since it will act on this very point: it will actually put the doctors in our pockets. The council will indeed, make the user experience “specific” not only because based on individual clinical information, but also since it will provide the user with professionals specialised in diverse areas, backing the digital tool, providing specialised interpretations of measurements and advices, and a possibility for cross-checking – given that the Coaches might not agree on a matter.
The goal is to help users be no more left alone with pieces of electronics and software; doctors have back their say in the interpretation of data and in the doctor-patient dialogue, so precious to diagnosis and healing; and digital health grow to a more organic and efficient level.

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Council of Coaches, act 1: the kick-off meeting

Enschede, The Netherlands, November 2 and 3, two months after the formal start of the Project, the members of the consortium gathered for the Council of Couches kick-off meeting.

Two intense days during which the coordinators, Hermie Hermens (University of Twente) and Harm op den Akker – technical coordinator – (Roessingh Research and Development – RRD) assisted by Jorien van Loon (UT), presented and discussed the project concept and its technical aspects with the work-packages leaders and other members of the consortium.

First in the buildings of the University of Twente, which offer students, researchers and staff a striking stimulating environment, and then at RRD premises, the partners have shared and discussed in a big brainstorming, the details of the work in which they will be engaged for the coming three years in order to make the Council of Coaches come to life.

With a presentation on Open Data from external staff, insights of administrative aspects, and a dinner, this event represented a teambuilding occasion too.

Next step will be getting closer to our stakeholders, on the first of December, in Utrecht, the Netherlands.

The game has just started, and more meetings and news are to come.

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