Two people are in a corridor. On the left, a man wears a phone strapped to his arm. On the right, a woman holds a trundle wheel.

Can you guess how far you walk each day? We've an app for that

In response to the pandemic, the world’s two biggest MS research conferences have joined forces to go virtual. Sarah Alexander, a Research Associate at University College London, is one of hundreds of researchers presenting their latest results this weekend. She gives us a sneak peek of her presentation about a new app for people with MS.

Hi Sarah! So what are you presenting at the MSVirtual2020?

“I’m going to be presenting results from the first part of my pilot study testing a phone app called mSteps, which measures how far someone with MS can walk.”

Sounds interesting. Why do we need an app to measure walking distance?

“Well, when people with MS visit their neurologist or MS nurse, they’re often asked to estimate how far they can walk in a day.

I don’t know about you, but I’m terrible at guessing that sort of thing accurately. And studies show people with MS aren’t great at it either. Getting a more accurate picture would help us make better decisions in the clinic.

I also work with the team running MS-STAT2, the clinical trial testing whether simvastatin slows progression in secondary progressive MS. Surprisingly, the trundle wheel is still the gold standard for measuring walking ability in MS trials! So I’m interested in improving how we track changes in people’s abilities over time, to work out whether treatments are effective.”

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Conferences really encourage us share research. It’s great being able to see what other people are doing. You might see someone’s done something and it’ll spark a great idea. Sarah Alexander

Can’t we just use something like Fitbit or Strava?

“Most apps use accelerometers, which literally measure your acceleration to calculate how many steps you’ve taken. But if you use a walking stick or have an uneven gait because of MS, this isn’t always accurate.

And everything that does measure distance is commercial, so we can’t know about data ownership. That’s why we decided to build our own in-house app, to give anyone who’s using it control over their own data.”

Does it work?

“Indoors, the results were quite inaccurate - the app was out by about two metres compared to the trundle wheel. But outside, using GPS, the app was very accurate.

Because we were doing data collection in winter, we tested the app outdoors with people without MS. Now we’re testing it outdoors with people with MS. This part is almost finished too. I needed 100 people with MS to take part, and nearly everyone has done it.”

Why are you attending MS Virtual 2020?

“Conferences really encourage us share research. It’s great being able to see what other people are doing. You might see someone’s done something and it’ll spark a great idea.

It would be quite easy to put ourselves in a little hole and just think our research is the most important, so it’s great to get out there, meet other people and collaborate.

I haven’t done a virtual conference before so it’s going to be interesting. You can’t pass someone in the corridor and have a quick chat, so we’ll have to be more proactive. But flying to the US is expensive, so it’s actually made it a lot easier to take part in the conference this year.”

You can find out more about the latest research being presented at MS Virtual 2020 on the conference's website.