Data is the new media, itself. It’s what we’re going to be swimming in. It’s what the economy is built on. - Kevin Kelly
Silicon Valley startup, Fitbit, recently launched its new Aria Wi-Fi Smart Scale. As you step out of the shower each morning and onto your scale, your weight, percent body fat and body mass index (BMI) will be instantly transmitted to your Fitbit account. From there you can monitor your weight over time, track your caloric intake, and see correlations between weight change and activities. You can even share the data with your doctor or blast it out to your social networks. Seem weird? It’s not. It is part of a new revolution called the quantified self.
Like finance, media, music, movies and maps before it, there is an explosion of innovation in the consumer side of health technology. Startups and savvy individuals are building cheap, easy-to-use devices to track a range of body metrics. Heart rate and blood pressure monitors, pedometers, sleep managers, pulse-oximeters, and BMI scales are among the most straightforward and common. Even mainstream brands such as Nike, Motorola and Jawbone have products already in the market.
Others are developing methods to track attributes like happiness and mood. A company called ginger.io uses the accelerometer in iPhones to track movement and extrapolates mental wellness in depressed individuals. A quick leap over to the quantified self blog and you will see projects that range from plausible (sleep’s effect on one’s happiness) to downright strange (butter intake improving cognition or standing on one leg improving sleep). More and more measurement devices are cheaply available as well as powerful software to analyze the data.
The power is in the feedback loop and the ability to correlate between different measurements. These devices and tools are allowing people to see the effect of their behavior in near real time. With a once-a-year-if-you’re-lucky physical with a doctor, the feedback signals are too far apart, too easy to forget or ignore. To break a bad habit or start a good one, constant and immediate feedback is the way to go. Also important: how different activities are related. Imagine seeing an alert appear on your smart phone telling you that your blood sugar levels are nearing a level that typically causes you to sleep poorly. Would you skip that next Coke?
Millions will soon be tracking their health and well-being online and this leads inevitably to services that are free and advertiser-supported. Given the size of the health, fitness and well-being markets, these services will do well. Keeping personally identifiable information private, these companies will sell highly-targeted advertising based on some very new metrics. Saucony and Adidas will pay top dollar to advertise their $150 running shoes to those who run more than 5 miles a day. Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig will go after consumers who are more than 20% overweight. Big pharma will pay big money to get in front of people with high blood pressure. As these devices and software will increasingly be able to algorithmically determine almost all activities and many health conditions, the advertising possibilities will be endless.
There’s one last twist reported by Jon Cousins, founder of Moodscope and confirmed by others over and over again, if you are trying to break a habit or change your life for the better through quantified-self techniques, socializing (a.k.a. publishing), your data improves efficacy. With Web users becoming increasingly open with their personal information, we’ll soon be experiencing the trend of sharing health and wellness stats on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Friends and followers will confess their diseases, illnesses and defects and brag about their weight, cholesterol levels and happiness score. You’ll be able to follow, like and comment - and when you do you’ll be helping them by bearing witness and providing support in their quest to improve themselves. And thus, personal health information becomes the next new media.
John Vars is director of product management at SAY Media and a co-founder and former chief product officer of Dogster, Inc.