The Quantified Self

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I had an interesting meeting with a company on Friday who is building some consumer health technology looking to strengthen a person’s core with some cool hardware (can’t speak more about it just yet). During this meeting, we were talking about the recent trend of what is often referred to as the “quantified self”. This trend, as marked by the recent ubiquity (among the tech community) of Jawbone’s UP, Nike’s Fuelband, Fitbit, Basis, Runkeeper, Endomondo, DailyMile, etc., shows that personal health data is certainly IN. Moreover, RockHealth and other programs are devoting much needed energy and time into cracking the broader healthcare nut, which is a big hairy mess with many moving (and broken) parts.

With the quantified self, the thesis goes as follows: why is it that someone my age knows everything about his social data, knows everything about a company’s (say, Facebook’s) vitals, but if you ask a twenty-something male what his genetic makeup, blood pressure, cholesterol level, or body fat index is, the chance that he knows more than 2 out of 4 of those is TINY. With the gyroscope, accelerometer, and GPS capabilities of the iPhone and other smartphone technology, all you need is bluetooth and a compass and you’ve got all the hardware necessary to put together a comprehensive data gathering, recording, and delivery tool, so that a person can keep track of (and thus hold himself accountable for and care about) his own health statistics. This is cool.

What I’ve found companies are choosing as a strategy to this end, which makes sense on its face, is to design it as an outward fashion accessory, akin to the Livestrong band, to make it fashionable to be healthy. This method seems to have worked like a charm, and is catching on like wildfire in my immediate sphere of influence, and apparently beyond. The worry, though, which the entrepreneur I spoke to brought up, is that by becoming so trendy so quickly, it is increasingly less about *being* healthy, and more about *signaling* health consciousness. Remember when all those celebrities were wearing those yellow bands during the frenzy of the early 2000s? I worry that the same might happen with these tools. A lot of talk, and even a lot of units sold of these various devices, but no comprehensive improvements in wellness or health. I am inspired by Nick Crocker’s approach to “lifestyle health”, and I can’t help but be wary of the spate of products that are hoping to capitalize on this (critically important and powerful) mode of thinking. That said, if done right, personal health analytics is easily the most powerful application of smartphone technology that I can think of, and something that could save the government billions, if not trillions, of dollars. Not much direction to this post, just musing on the things I’ve seen on the interwebs lately.

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