December 19, 2012
Q&A with Steven Dean, organizer of Quantified Self New York
One of our 10 Trends for 2013 is the idea that smartphones will become de facto fingerprints, containing our identity all in one place. One aspect of that is the rising role of smartphones in gathering and analyzing data on health and well-being. To learn more about this, we spoke to Steven Dean, organizer of Quantified Self, a Meetup group for people interested in gaining knowledge about themselves through self-tracking. Dean, who has a broad entrepreneurial, design and product development background, is a partner at Prehype, a product innovation studio that incubates new digital companies on behalf of corporations and VCs. We discussed self-monitoring “appcessories,” data overload and the future of health care diagnostics.
One term associated with the Mobile Fingerprint is the notion of the “quantified self.” What’s driving people to use their smartphones and other sensor-laden devices to track elements of their health?
Behind the things we see and do in “quantified self” and what we categorize and label as “quantified self” has been going on for a very long time. So I caution people to recognize that we now have a label for this, and so while it feels like there’s a growing interest in it, we also have to recognize that self-tracking, self-monitoring and self-experimentation have been going on for thousands of years. At its core, “quantified self” is Weight Watchers.
So that’s an important caveat to recognize that this is just a label and a description that we’ve used as we’ve begun looking at another kind of shift that’s been occurring in this nebulous realm of self-monitoring, self-recording, self-tracking, self-experimentation—trying to basically improve ourselves, with health or productivity or other aspects of our lives.
I think the first impetus behind [this trend] was the fact that the sensor that we call an accelerometer dropped significantly in price, well below $1. Most of that was driven by the fact that the auto industry had decided quite a while ago to use accelerometers to trigger airbags. And when they decided that, the price of accelerometers fell to the floor. Then there are smart entrepreneurs who worked at this technology, found that it was cheap and said, “How can we do something?” We have accelerometers in our phone, as well. We’re all basically walking around with accelerometers.
I also believe that design has begun to arrive in the world of health monitoring or wellness monitoring, and that was not there until very recently. I think Nike+ led the force there. My belief is that once you really start to bring good design into the development of those kinds of monitoring devices, then consumer interest increases. It’s just natural.
As important, I think just the notion of tracking ourselves has really increased because of the Internet, that we have created a culture of sharing data, sharing pictures, sharing status updates. Just the fact that we are communicating and sharing with others and sharing all kinds of digital snippets has created a culture of “I’m doing something: Let me tell you, let me record it, and then let me tell someone about it.”
Then, as you’ve already identified, we are all walking around with super powerful personal computers in our pocket that we call phones, and that has transformed us. That has made it easy to track [myself] in the context in which I do something. Before smartphones, there were many of us, including myself, building self-tracking applications in websites. But you’re asking people who don’t live their lives in a browser to take the time to sit down and record, in a Web form, how many glasses of water you drank over the last five days. How many fruits and vegetables you ate yesterday, how many blank, how many blank. That was problematic in many ways because people didn’t live their lives that way.
That began to shift because the phone is this always-connected, data-in-the-cloud kind of interface. They’re either posting a status update, they’re taking a picture, they’re tracking their points at Weight Watchers, they’re sending a text message, they’re responding to a text message, they’re responding to a notification in an app. So it’s just constant dialog between men and the system, and that’s a dialog about behavior or actions or events; things that I do.
What role does the development of smartphone-friendly, sensor-laden “appcessories” like Up by Jawbone and Nike+ FuelBand play in the evolution of self-tracking?
The motivating force behind that is that a data-capture device alone is not really very helpful to anyone who’s interested in shifting behavior, changing behavior, continuing to motivate themselves—whatever it is that their goal is. So many of those sensor devices were needing desperately what I call a service component that provides the feedback mechanism that basically shows you what you’re doing, because most consumers are not interested in data.
[Various companies] came out of the gate with these great data-capture devices, but [version] 1.0 was really lacking around the service component that you wrap around the sensor device. And that service component is “OK, well what do I do? I’ve got the data, now how do you want me to change my behavior? What is it that you want me to do next? Where am I in terms of my progress? What is my goal? And if I’m making progress toward my goal, how am I going to find this out?”
Everyone’s walking around with a very small screen, and [when] you tether that to your sensors, you’ve got this really interesting dialog happening between sensor and phone, and phone and user. So that helps improve the entire ecosystem of the service model. You’ve got something in the form of a phone that provides the feedback on the data that the sensors capture. It’s telling you what kind of progress you’re making towards your goal, or if you’re getting off-track, that screen can tell you what you need to do next.
What will be the cultural or behavioral shift as more people adopt self-tracking technology?
What we’re seeing in quantified-self, for the most part, is consumer-wellness devices and products that have to do with just collecting data about nutrition and diet, whether I’m expending energy or eating energy. It’s a system that is helping me measure and monitor something my brain cannot do. I can’t keep track of how many steps I walk on my own while I’m walking. It’s nearly impossible.
We are essentially increasing the resolution of the sensing that we’re doing around a particular behavior, and the frequency and the range. So if I said to you, “How many fruits and vegetables did you eat on average in the last week?” your memory recall is probably going to be pretty bad. So as we measure a body and your behaviors through these kinds of sensor technologies, more and more, we’re going to get a more accurate reading of your true behaviors, of the things you actually did.
Can you give an example of this?
The example I like to give is a project I worked on last year for asthma patients. [The company] has a sensor that is attached to an asthma inhaler. And every time a patient takes a dose from their inhaler when they have an asthma attack, the sensor records the time stamp of that attack and then makes a connection to the smartphone to leverage and to borrow the GPS functionality in the smartphone to grab the location of that attack.
Before that technology, an asthmatic had literally no real idea of how often they had asthma attacks. And for years, when a doctor would ask an asthma patient how many times they’d had an asthma attack or how many times they used their asthma inhaler in the last 30 days, 80 percent of patients believed their asthma was under control. The facts were really that only 20 percent were under control. It was such a large gap between what people believed they were doing and what they were actually doing in terms of how many asthma attacks they had or how many times they used their inhaler.
So suddenly, once you start to instrument these kinds of behaviors, you get true factual data. That alone is powerful around just bringing an awareness to the things you’re actually doing. But then you start to attach additional levels of data that increase the resolution or the range or the frequency of the data, and you have a powerful story that may help guide that patient to both understanding their asthma better, understanding their condition better, whatever it might be, and then ultimately make some kind of change in their behavior. So if I recognize that 80 percent of my asthma attacks are happening at the workplace, then something’s up at work. There may be some kind of irritant or pollutant in the air that’s causing my attacks.
More and more of your instrumenting and increasing the variety of the sensing of ourselves and our environment and our world is just going to continue to explode and I think it’s going to be transformative around getting more accurate data about things we have questions about.
We’ve seen devices that track activity, sleep and various vital signs like blood pressure. What is the next frontier for self-tracking?
I’m really excited about all the stuff that’s happening inside of our bodies that we can’t see and that we can’t sense with external sensors. Proteus Digital Health already has the first swallowable, ingestible sensor. There will just continue to be more and more [developments].
When you start to combine sensor technology with nanotechnology with synthetic biology, [you gain] the ability to basically sense an organ that might be in distress or failing, or even like postmyocardial infarction. Ingestible and swallowable sensors, even [the ability] to plant the sensor in that body, it’s a fascinating world that I think is going to continue to expand.
You see the instruments on the physical body, but I also think there’s a bigger opportunity for instrumenting the context in which we live and having that communicate back to the sensors on our body or in our bones. Because we don’t live in isolation; we don’t do things in isolation with just our bodies and ourselves. We do it in the world. When you have multiple people with coordinated sensors in the world, and their sensors are kind of talking back to one another … it is not just about the self, it’s also about others. It’s about myself and others, my environment and my city.
One of the things that was really interesting about the [asthma-related] work we did is that we added a sensor data for the individual asthma patient around how many times they’re using their inhaler. But then we also have the collective data about where asthma outbreaks were occurring within a community. Then you had layered on top of that weather data, pollen data. And you can see the different layers that can come in, information layers. The challenge for brands is how to use and coordinate all those layers and data that then tell a story that’s meaningful back to the consumer.
As we layer sensors throughout our worlds, do you think there’s a risk of excess information? Do you think we can know or sense too much?
Absolutely. We’re already in that state. I am already overloaded with information. There’s plenty of anxiety already, and adding more and more [data] is going to create more and more [anxiety].
What are the opportunities for brands looking to help consumers deal with this information?
There’s an opportunity for brands and for entrepreneurs and for designers to be very, very purposeful about a new system that moves us away from that information overload. How do we as a brand acknowledge [consumer anxiety] and design systems and services to address that, so we continue to take advantage of this wonderful technology to learn more and more about ourselves and our environment and our world—but in such a way that it’s thoughtful and purposeful, and meaningful without a spooky overlay of sensor upon sensor upon sensor, data upon data. With all new technologies, those are questions and discussions and debates and discourse that we should have.
Many of us, particularly those of us in health, we see the real opportunity here to do the kinds of things we’ve just never been able to do in health. I think it’s going to be transformative to the health care system. I’ve told many people that if you’re in the business of diagnostic health, your days are numbered, because sensors and devices and apps can do all of this. [We] don’t need a diagnostician to diagnose things.
I have hearing loss, so I went to an audiologist a couple of years ago, and I had to do a very elaborate exam that took two or three hours. There’s an app I downloaded that showed me exactly the same result I got from this audiologist, and I did this in minutes. To me, the writing is right there, on the wall. Diagnostics is going to go the way of sensors.
If I were to predict the company or the brand that’s going to build these kinds of things, it’s someone who will build a service that allows people to fully personalize their dashboard based on the apps features and functions and sensors that they’re currently using, and kind of build it in an ad hoc way. There’s a huge opportunity for someone to come in and completely redesign annual health physicals through just technology, through the phone and sensors.
[It’s easier] starting with a niche condition, and then you can naturally grow by attaching additional sensors or instruments to that.
As brands layer on compatibility with social networks like Facebook and Twitter, how do you think people will feel about sharing their data not only with brands but with each other?
When it comes to health data, and I define that broadly from weight to my audiology score, I think places like Facebook are not the right venues for sharing that. We don’t see very much of it. We don’t even see very much of it on Twitter. But I do think wellness data is something you share if it’s a closed group that’s supporting one another around that particular change or condition. You’re much more apt to share in that kind of environment. Everyone is different around this stuff, and some of the stuff is very personal and very private, and some people get huge benefit and value from sharing it with others like them.