SALT LAKE CITY — While the preponderance of attendees at this week's Qualtrics user summit were a veritable who's who of the top national and international brands, the company's earliest customer group of academics was also well represented.
Among an agenda of celebrity speakers Thursday — including composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, skate legend Tony Hawk, NBA legend Magic Johnson and a surprise appearance by Monica Lewinsky — were two scientists performing work using Qualtrics data and analytics tools that is poised to change and improve the lives of those facing some specific challenges in quite profound ways.
Dr. Angela Duckworth has been on a career path of numerous touch points, as a management consultant, researcher, professor, author and one-time seventh-grade science teacher. She was also a MacArthur Fellow in 2013 and is the founder/CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit research, design and education effort.
Her organization is producing "radically awesome" playbooks to assist teachers in helping students build strength of "heart, will and mind" and has also launched a research network, leveraging Qualtrics data and analysis tools, that has become an entry point for other social scientists to work with, and improve the lives of middle and high school students around the country.
In her best-selling book, "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance," Duckworth explores the path to success as one less driven by the gift of genius than the combination of passion and long-term perseverance. Her work with Character Lab is helping to build a toolkit for educators to cultivate these character traits in their students and put them on the path to successful academic and personal futures.
Duckworth said Qualtrics-developed tools are playing a critical role in achieving her goals.
"The scientific approach of 50 years ago, where samples may have been 16 kids in one group and 16 in another, is one where you'll never be able to know whether the intervention worked or didn't work," Duckworth said. "You need 1,600 kids and, logistically, it's just not possible."
And that's where Qualtrics comes in, allowing Duckworth and her team to use "a digital platform to collect that information at scale simultaneously and in a way that is frictionless for the school and frictionless for the researcher."
"I can’t imagine a more synergistic relationship, and when I imagine what I would have done if Qualtrics didn’t exist, I don’t think we would have tried to do this," Duckworth said. "You could never recreate all of this in the way you that you’d need to."
British researcher Dr. Peter Lovatt, a social scientist who teaches at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, England, is also using customized Qualtrics tools to greatly expand his data gathering reach for work he's doing to develop dance/movement therapies for sufferers of Parkinson's disease.
Lovatt referred to a 2007 research paper that claimed a connection between symptom improvements and recreational dance activities. Lovatt said he and his colleagues viewed the results with deep cynicism, but were intrigued nevertheless and performed their own tests.
"We didn’t think these effects would generalize or replicate," Lovatt said. "But, we put some Parkinson's patients through a series of dance classes and we confirmed the findings."
Lovatt and his team then dove deeper into their own research, spending three or four years testing various combinations of structured dance, improvised dance and other movement activities to see what impacts they had on test participants with the neurodegenerative disorder. But progress on his work was stymied, like Duckworth's, by the challenges of recruiting research subjects with Parkinson's and then planning and coordinating the time-intensive laboratory-based testing and data gathering. Then Qualtrics came into the picture.
"I explained the problem space to Jimmy White in the (Qualtrics) Dublin office," Lovatt said. "They started to develop the Tap-a-Tempo program, enabling us to take all this technological equipment from our laboratory and squeeze it into a mobile phone so we can now collect, for the very first time, rhythm and timing data from people in the field."
In just the first week of a beta test, launched last December, Lovatt and his team were able to quadruple their previous sample set, gathering data from 253 people with Parkinson's and over 1,300 nonsufferers. Lovatt noted the information collected from those without the disease will help build a better baseline data set and will help calibrate other results.
While the work is still in its early stages, Lovatt posited that he and his team could be on the path to a customizable, mobile-phone based therapeutic approach for treating Parkinson's patients.
"For the app what would be amazing is if we could push different types of dance or movement instructions, as we see people's rhythm and timing getting poorer we could send an alert via phone that it’s time to do your exercise," Lovatt said. "Then we want to be able to develop dance classes that are research and evidence based … individuals."
In an interview Wednesday, Qualtrics co-founder and CEO Ryan Smith said that the company's connection with, and commitment to, research and the academic world was the point from which they started and would always figure largely into the work they do.
"Research and its role in making lives better, making communities better, and the world better is how this all got started," Smith said. "The work that Angela and Peter doing are great examples. They're changing lives and if Qualtrics can play a role in that, we're going to be there to do what we can to help."
"Academic work is driving so much of the innovation that eventually makes it into the world of products and services or software that there's sometimes little distinction."