Quantified Self: We Get the Data, But Where’s the Information?

February 19th, 2013
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Now that a few of the year’s first conferences with a “future of health” or “digital health” focus (e.g., the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference) have passed, I thought it would be a good time to consider whether consumer-oriented digital health products truly affect outcomes, as often promised.
CES featured an abundance of consumer-oriented devices to measure fitness and track physical activity. There are a growing number of companies – like Jawbone, Fitbit, Nike and Withings – that offer tracking devices, or are introducing new versions. They’re all fairly imprecise by some standards, and measure a variety of parameters, such as number of steps per day, body temperature, heart rate or galvanic skin response, that are then analyzed to measure fitness in a non-specific way.
These devices are primarily aimed at people who have been inactive and are trying to change their behavior and they don’t provide detailed, layered information that serious recreational athletes (e.g., runners) would want. For example, most do not contain a GPS so distance traveled is approximated based on steps and stride length rather than actually measured.
The unanswered question at CES and elsewhere was: How much of the appeal of these devices is just their novelty? Will people keep using these? Clearly, given the relatively nascent state of the industry, we don’t have the answers yet. Of course, the manufacturers know, for example, the number of customers that continue to use the devices after initial activation, but those numbers are typically not disclosed.
Marketing claims aside, it seems reasonable to ask if these devices are likely to make a difference in the health of a majority of consumers who purchase them. Maybe they help people get active, but we’ll need some time to know if they make a difference in helping people stay active. Stated differently, what is the impact of quantification on behavior choice as compared to the impact of general awareness and knowledge (e.g. “exercise is good”)?
Importantly, regardless of the answer, the relatively sudden abundance of these trackers is an element of a larger phenomenon, i.e., the “quantified self” movement. People are taking to measuring various aspects of their lives, something made possible by smartphones and apps, remote sensors, activity trackers and the cloud.
While there is no doubt that the quantified self is adding to the world’s data, I wonder when that data will generate meaningful information. What’s missing is a service that analyzes an individual’s specific data to identify possible correlations to various physiological and emotional states. For example, how does my sleep time and quality correlate to my stress level? Am I at my best when I sleep for the recommended 8 hours or, in my case, might 6 hours be better? Or 10?
As we further understand biology, it should be possible for a personalized trainer (either human or virtual) to provide specific advice on specific diets, workouts, etc., to reach optimum fitness and health levels. Current recommendations for diet and exercise are generalized for a population and as such result in trial and error approaches on the part of individuals. In some ways this is analogous to blockbuster drugs, which often don’t work in a significant number of patients prescribed them. Just as we recognize the potential benefits of personalized (or precision) medicine, there will be a growing awareness that we need more personalized approaches to diet and exercise to achieve optimal health and fitness levels.
At Popper and Company, we think there is a valuable market for innovations that organize and personalize this fitness data – and we’re monitoring the industry closely. We can help you create new ideas (and new inventions) to address true unmet needs, and give your company (and its products) a sustainable market advantage. To learn more, you can subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, or send me an email.

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About the Author:

I co-founded Popper and Company more than ten years ago to help life science companies at all stages of development and of all sizes address inefficiencies in health care. Along with my team members, I focus on helping clients develop and implement strategies that enable the application of technology and processes to improve health care in novel ways, often through the establishment of relationships with industry partners. Click to send me an email.