British Columbia's digital technology capabilities and linkages to Silicon Valley, Asia and the Cascadia Innovation Corridor make it one of the top start-up ecosystems in the world. In 2018, Canada's Digital Technology Supercluster was established with headquarters in Vancouver, solidifying the region and Canada as a global hub for digital innovation.
To support the Supercluster's research agenda, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) has launched the Digital Health and Geospatial Analytics Supercluster support program and joined forces with leading research organizations in BC. The program is carrying out 8 funded collaborative research projects with the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria, with additional projects in the pipeline and a total investment of approximately $1.5M in grants and contributions per year by the NRC.
"The key to creating meaningful applications is transforming data into knowledge, using machine learning and advanced analytics. Over its 7-year life span, the program will work with partners in 2 key areas: digital health and geospatial analytics."
Digital health – Using virtual reality for treatment of depression
With the University of British Columbia (UBC), NRC experts are working on virtual reality (VR) for treatment of depression. Their cognitive assessment and remediation program, called bWell-D, aims to improve workplace functioning in British Columbians with depression.
"Cognitive dysfunction, a core feature of depression, has been identified as an important target in improving workplace functioning. Effective treatments for cognitive dysfunction in depression are however lacking. Immersive virtual reality is a promising avenue for cognitive remediation, and we believe it can make a difference."
Drs. Trisha Chakrabarty and Raymond Lam from the Department of Psychiatry at UBC and the Mood Disorders Centre of the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health are working with Dr. Debergue's team at the NRC.
Together with the NRC, they have co-designed depression cognitive exercises for the bWell-D platform that are being correlated with standard clinical measures of cognitive domains in healthy control subjects. These acceptability and efficacy studies are informing the design and process improvements of the VR exercises. Similar studies are planned in working participants with depression. Interviews with allied health professionals who support depression recovery will provide feedback on how to integrate bWell-D in a depression treatment plan.
"When you have a physical injury, you typically go see a physiotherapist, who provides in-person treatment, and also gives you exercises to do at home. That's what we ultimately envision for bWell-D. Sessions with a therapist would be complemented with focussed, at-home VR sessions for cognitive remediation."
However, incorporating user feedback early in the design process is vital for the ultimate success of any digital health intervention. Gathering clinician and patient perceptions of the bWell program will ensure the team creates something useful and efficacious.
Randomized control trials across clinical settings and home environments will help validate the technology's effectiveness. The trials will yield multifaceted digital datasets that include self-reported outcomes, clinical evaluations and cognitive and behavioural data. Machine learning will illuminate useful measures for detecting risk factors and changes in function, generating actionable insights about patients' cognitive health. This work lays the foundation for using data from VR assessment programs to create personalized cognitive and functional interventions in people with depression.
In collaboration with Dr. Xuekui Zhang, Tier II Canada Research Chair in Biostatistics and Bioinformatics at the University of Victoria, NRC experts are analyzing historical geospatial data about environmental impacts on the shellfish industry.
Over the past 40 years, the Canadian Shellfish Sanitation Program collected data on 14,710 shellfish harvesting sites across 6 coastal provinces. These data include fecal coliform bacteria and marine biotoxins that cause amnesic, diarrhetic and paralytic shellfish poisonings (ASP, DSP, PSP) associated with climate change, pollution, coastal eutrophication and other factors.
"The richness and special features in data are not only a challenge for statisticians like me, but also provide great opportunities to develop novel methods to answer high-impact questions in environmental and ocean science,"
Using machine learning and artificial intelligence, the team is developing models to help protect the shellfish industry. These include monitoring and prediction tools that take into account changes to climate and ecosystem, construction projects and other human activities.
"The tools we are developing will enable governments and the shellfish industry to visualize historical and geospatial contamination patterns and to predict future contamination levels across Canada, to ensure the sustainability of this industry,"
Collaborative R&D initiatives strengthen Canadian science
As the NRC's collaborative research in support of digital technology progresses, so do opportunities for its application by Canada's Digital Technology Supercluster and its members. Technologies coming out of the Digital Health and Geospatial Analytics program will be pitched to supercluster members in 2022 and beyond.
For more information, consult the Digital Health and Geospatial Analytics program page, and stay tuned to the NRC's social media channels with #Superclusters to learn more about how the program supports the development of digital technologies.
The Digital Health and Geospatial Analytics program is part of a suite of collaborative R&D initiatives bringing together researchers and facilities from across the NRC's 14 research centres with academic and industrial partners. Grant and contribution funding is provided through the NRC's National Program Office for Challenge and Supercluster support program collaborators who offer complementary expertise, including academic institutions and small and medium‑sized enterprises.