The Commercialization of Quantified Self: It’s A Good Thing

I enjoyed spending the weekend at the first Quantified Self conference in Mountain View. I’ve been reading some of the post-event tweets and enjoyed reading Ernesto Ramirez’s blog post with his reflections on the conference. (Ernesto gave a wonderful, energizing talk about creating a treadmill desk and admonished everyone to go do it themselves.) Ernesto wrote about his hope for investors in QS to focus on the entrepreneurs who are truly passionate about QS. I agree and I’d like to expand on why I think commercialization here is a good thing.

Ernesto Ramirez discusses why we need NEAT  #QS2011

I also volunteered for the conference, to help bring in sponsors and exhibitors. I thought the exhibits could serve a dual purpose – give attendees the opportunity to learn about cool products that are out there to help with self quantification, like Zeo, Philips DirectLife, BodyMedia, etc.

QSers checking out Zeo and others at  #QS2011

For the exhibitors, I saw it as a place where they could share their products and services but also a place where they could interact with leading edge customers, people who could give face to face feedback about a product they’ve been using for some time, or a product they are just seeing for the first time. I had the sense from attendees and exhibitors that these goals were met.

So clearly there are already companies involved in Quantified Self, some of which have been around for some time before QS as a group started to take off (eg BodyMedia), and some which are just getting started. I’ve written before about what I like about Quantified Self, and I view the QS community to be the “alpha geeks” that Tim O’Reilly has spoken about — trailblazers worth watching. QSers are highly motivated and willing to make do with whatever tools they can find. That’s great and I also hope that continues. I continue to be inspired by their stories and their ingenuity.

What motivates me is seeing the possibility of what will happen when anyone can self quantify and make sense of the data. When people can easily, even invisibly gather data that will help them better understand their own health risks, start to take action, and see the results occurring through the feedback loop that data can provide. When people with chronic disease can use these techniques to understand whether new steps they are taking — a lifestyle change, a new medication — are having an effect on their symptoms and underlying condition. When we can have an effect on behavior change and self efficacy for anyone.

To get to that point of accessibility — through invisible devices, easy to use interfaces, well integrated systems, customer service/support — we need money to flow into this space. We need the early adopters to share their successes and for people to see the impact that this can have, and then we can build companies and ecosystems that will help this grow and become available to more people and have a bigger health impact worldwide.

And when that happens, perhaps people will lament that it isn’t the same anymore, it isn’t a small community where you know everyone, where people were just doing it because they needed something and made it themselves, where the motivation was personal, not commercial. But to really have a big health impact, I believe we’ll have to move from craft to commercial. The craft can still exist, and that can help continually create new ideas and pressure to improve and fix the problems that aren’t fixed yet. (I loved that we had exhibits from people like Kyle Machulis of who were passionate about this showing off their non-commercial projects.)

What QS can do as a community is encourage these entrepreneurs and startups, help them understand the need, design with values we care about like integration and data portability, and build products that we want to use and we know will be useful to everyone. Then we will all win.

©2011 Alex L. Bangs, All Rights Reserved.

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Health Hackathon

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment

I just wrote a piece for HealthTap‘s blog about my experience at their health hackathon event on September 11. There were a lot of people in a small space all excited about what they could do to improve health and wellness, it was a fun and productive time. If you missed this event and would like to join a future event, there is a code-a-thon on October 2 at Google, right before the Health 2.0 Conference.

Crowdsourcing for Health Team

You might also be asking why all the focus on health developer events? It is part of a larger initiative called the Health 2.o Developer Challenge that is encouraging people to develop novel solutions to improve health and wellness for people. A key sponsor is HHS which wants to get the word out about their Community Health Data Initiative project, pushing government data sets out onto the net for easier access. If you haven’t heard of CHDI and are a data geek, I recommend taking a look, I’m sure you’ll find something interesting there to play with. And there are more data sets here. Enjoy!

©2010 Alex L. Bangs, All Rights Reserved.

Categories: Uncategorized

Counting Calories and Healthy Intuition

August 31, 2010 Leave a comment
I’ve had a couple of experiences that helped me see that intuition may not always lead you toward the healthiest choices.

Experience #1: Some co-workers were traveling through an airport in NY where the calorie counts are posted. If you had a choice of salad or pizza, which would you assume was better for you? Guess what, the salad had more calories. Of course, the salad also probably had healthier ingredients. Hmmm.

Experience #2: I was in Panera, which posts calorie counts even where the law doesn’t require it yet. Looking at the baked goods, I saw a “muffie” (kind of a flattened muffin) and a cookie that looked good. The cookie was over 400 calories and the muffie was 250. Would you have guessed that? I didn’t. (And the muffie was good.)

One thing we can do for consumers is help guide them toward healthy choices. An easy place to start is by posting calorie counts, so I’m glad that’s coming soon across the U.S. The Wall Street Journal today reported that the administration is proposing to widen the mandatory posting of calories to include more than traditional restaurants, e.g., airplanes, convenience stores, and movie theaters. We can debate where exactly the line should be drawn but I can say as a frequent traveler myself, making it easier to make healthy choices on the road would be a good thing (which is lower calorie on United – the sandwich or the salad?).

What will the effect be once this information is provided? The WSJ story showed data that there was a slight drop in calories purchased among Starbucks clients in NYC after calorie counts were posted, primarily in the extra goodies they buy to go with their coffee (the WSJ statistics were from a paper posted here).

Visiting family this summer, I ate at Cracker Barrel, ordering my favorite blueberry pancakes, eggs, and bacon. I’m betting this meal is close to 1/2 days worth of calories. Fortunately, when I eat it, I tend to skip lunch that day. When the calorie posting comes, what will the effect be for CB?

When you pay your bill at CB, you’ll notice they have an electronic tally of all the items ordered. If they have good analytics, they should be tracking effects of showing the calorie counts and then trying experiments to see the effects on consumers. What happens if we change the formulation or portion size to bring the count down? Or trade out something for fruit – maybe same calories but you feel a little better about what you are eating (like my blueberries in the pancakes)? How about new menu items? Those with the data and the analytics can start to work within this new system to find something that works for them and for consumers — and ideally we end up with people eating a little less, a little healthier.

In the future, going beyond calories – helping people understand “good” vs “bad” calories is a logical next step (that pizza vs salad question) but giving this first nudge, helping people where their intuition might not work, is a great start.

©2010 Alex L. Bangs, All Rights Reserved.

Categories: Uncategorized

What I like about QuantifiedSelf

August 28, 2010 4 comments

I started getting involved with a group called QuantifiedSelf in 2008, organized by Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf who had started a blog earlier on the same subject. The focus of the group and the blog are the devices and techniques that people are using to make measurements about themselves, the experiments they conduct with this capability, and what they are learning in the process.

There are groups that meet in the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, Boston and elsewhere around the world with more coming. The SF meetings start with drinks and munchies, conversation, and show and tell where people show off new things they are working on. This is followed by a series of presentations where people show their work and do Q&A.

There are three kinds of presentations that I’ve found particularly compelling: (1) Getting to the bottom of a problem (2) What I’ve learned from experiments (3) A new device/technology I created or tried.

First, there are the talks by people who have a health concern but have not been well served by the traditional medical establishment or other means. For example, people who may have chronic pain, mystery allergies, GI disorders or other issues. These folks have been inspired to start measuring different things about themselves to try to see if something correlates with good and bad outcomes for themselves.

What’s interesting here is (1) these people are often doing this with no special devices or exotic technology but are just doing whatever it takes to measure and make sense of the data (2) they are often measuring multiple data points simultaneously in an attempt to see patterns. For example, they might measure pain or other discomfort levels, events (like an asthmatic attack), mood, exercise they took, what they ate, drugs they took, etc. Bottom line: these people are in pain and want that pain to go away or at least be understood – and they are motivated to do something about it. It is worth paying attention to what they are doing and what they are learning in the process. I should note that sites like CureTogether and patientslikeme were created to help with these problems – and leverage the community to seek solutions.

Second, there are the talks by people who are conducting experiments on themselves. Perhaps they have problems sleeping or want to understand what might lower their blood pressure. In any case, they are trying changes and seeing what happens. A recent talk discussed how the presenter had noticed improvements in mental processing, as measured by a test he had created. Sounds interesting but even better, the improvements came when he increased the butter in his diet. A lively discussion ensued on why this might be, how we could study this in more people, and whether there might perchance be bad effects of consuming a lot of butter. 🙂

Third, there are the talks about new technology. It is especially interesting to see prototypes that people have created and tried. Some of these are new devices for making measurements and some are software or techniques for capturing measurements. Some of the intriguing ones I have seen include a microphone connected to a camping air mattress, wedged between a regular mattress and box springs, to measure sleep activity (and it was sensitive enough to also detect heartbeat). Another was a system for logging all thoughts someone has had for many, many years. His ability to search and pull out thoughts from long ago made me think of the pensieve from the Harry Potter books.

For every talk, key questions people are asked is What have you learned? and What did you find surprising? In my case, I gave a talk on my use of a device from Philips called DirectLife, and what I found surprising was how motivating it was for me to use this device and its little lights to tell me how I was doing on my exercise goal for the day.

Bottom line: the QuantifiedSelf group is full of inventive, creative people interested in health and wellness and how to make it better for themselves and for others. It’s very inspiring and I learn something new each time I attend. I would encourage you to join a meetup, measure something, try an experiment, and learn more about what you can do for yourself and others to improve wellness.

©2010 Alex L. Bangs, All Rights Reserved.

Categories: Uncategorized
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