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Shaping the Future of Software
Kid-friendly Software

by Alicia P. Gregory

In starting her own research program, Hayes looked for software applications that would allow her to gather the kind of stats that are her bread and butter. In software maintainability monitoring—trying to estimate how long and how much money would be required to take over somebody else's code (something technology companies need to know, but have no clear method for estimating)—she needs to take measurements of many different software programs at different stages of development.

"It's just like when you go to the doctor," Hayes says. "They measure blood pressure, temperature, height, and weight. We have data that we collect on programs—things like number of lines of code. We're trying to figure out if any of those things correlate with the actual time it takes for somebody to change a program, because if we can find those correlations, we can build models to help with cost estimating."

But Hayes has taken a unique approach to gathering her experimental data: she sees her work as an opportunity to give real-life engineering experience to her students, and to impact researchers at UK, as well as kids with genetic and speech disorders.

Her first software project at UK was inspired by her best friend's daughter. Hayes met Kelly Noss Marcum in 1982, when they were sorority sisters at Hanover College. Hannah, Marcum's daughter, was diagnosed with phenylketonuria (PKU).

The Problem: PKU is a rare, inherited metabolic disease that, without treatment, results in mental retardation and other neurological disorders. "People with PKU can't metabolize phenylalanine [an essential amino acid]. So phenylalanine, which is a subset of protein, builds up in their body and kills brain tissue," Hayes says. The level of enzyme deficiency varies among children with PKU, but most must adhere to a strict diet that eliminates all high-protein foods. That means no meat, fish, poultry, milk, eggs, cheese, ice cream, nuts, and many foods that contain regular flour.

Newborn screening, by way of a heel prick to test blood for high levels of phenylalanine, has been mandated in the United States since the mid-'60s. One out of every 10,000 babies born in this country has PKU; several hundred infants are diagnosed and put on a restricted diet each year.

The Goal: Help kids with PKU and their families keep track of their phenylalanine milligrams.

The Assignment: Write a piece of software that incorporates the USDA nutritional database that will help people with PKU choose food and track daily and weekly milligram intake.

Hayes initially had the students write the software for a home computer. "There are workstation versions available commercially now, which wasn't the case when we built our software," Hayes says, but adds her intention from the beginning was to start with the workstation version, then throw what she calls a "major modification" at the students—requiring them to adapt their code to run on a PDA.

PDAs, or personal digital assistants, are mobile, hand-held devices (essentially mini-computers) that many people use to keep calendars and addresses. Common PDAs include 3Com's PalmPilot and Compaq's iPAQ, and typically range in price from $100 to $700, depending on processor speed and graphics quality.

The Challenge: PDAs are convenient from a user's standpoint, but troublesome to a software engineer. "The PDA takes us back to the dark ages of having to worry again about memory and processor speed," Hayes says, adding that the most popular PDA, a PalmPilot, is hard to write software for because of the small amount of memory. Her students have had the most success programming for the iPAQ. "Palms have around 8 MB; iPAQs have 64 MB."

The Result: "The beauty of having a program that tracks phenylalanine milligrams on a PDA is you don't have to write down what you eat," Hayes says. Right now, most people with PKU or their parents have to keep track of food by hand then type it into Microsoft Word or Excel.

"Plus, it really helps in the decision process." Hayes shows the graphic interface that allows the user to select a category like "Vegetables" from a pull-down menu. "They can look up any kind of food, and the software pulls from the USDA nutrition database the phenylalanine milligrams and calories. Even some fruits and vegetables, like corn on the cob, are high in phenylalanine, so kids with PKU really have to watch what they eat." The software keeps a running tally of milligrams for the day and week.

Hayes hopes to develop the software to the point where the kids can take the PDA home, put it in the cradle—the base that sends information stored in the PDA to their personal computer—and generate reports that they could e-mail to the doctor before their next checkup.

UK has taken the first step toward patenting this technology, and Hannah Marcum, who is 15, is carrying the software, called the PheTracker, on her PDA. She submits "bug reports" when she has a problem with the software. "We have a volunteer student group at UK helping to correct these bugs," Hayes says.

"We have 10 families lined up to borrow the iPAQs with this software once we release it. We were specifically targeting preteens, because they're just getting old enough to do this on their own." Hayes adds, "Schools won't let kids carry PDAs or cell phones, but the PKU kids could carry these with doctor's permission, so that makes them cool after all these years of being weird because they can't eat meat or dairy."

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