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Quantified Self Should Be About Health, Not Ego

Silicon Valley is obsessed with data collection, including personal data. But for health and fitness monitoring technologies, the real goal must be meaningful health results.

"Quantified Self" is a perfectly valid term to use when talking to Silicon Valley techies, particularly those who are obsessive about data collection and their own self-importance.

But for normal people?

Last week, I was moderating a panel discussion on "Quantified Self and Consumer Engagement" at the MediFuture conference when other speakers revealed their distaste for the buzzword embedded in the title. Christine Lemke, co-founder and head of product for a startup called The Activity Exchange, was explaining her firm's goals of integrating data feeds from multiple health and fitness monitoring gadgets and apps and turning them into useful information. She was joined by her marquee customer, Elizabeth Bierbower, President of the Group Segment at Humana, which is incorporating the service into its health and wellness programs.

[Meaningful analytics: Data Science That Makes a Difference.]

The point of their partnership is not just to monitor but to encourage and reinforce healthy behaviors, turning them into lifelong habits.

Lemke kept her introduction blessedly buzzword-free, but then I went and ruined it by asking about quantified self, a term for the potential of self-monitoring with wearable computers said to have been coined by Wired Magazine editors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly. I wanted to know: What does that term mean to you and how useful is it?

"That term 'quantified self' is attached to a bunch of things like you live in Silicon Valley and you're obsessed about all these things -- so it's becoming a less and less useful term," she said. "And I don't think your average 'normal' person, as we call them in marketing, cares about it that much."

In another part of the conference, I heard similar ridicule for Internet of Things, another popular buzzword in the industry and the press (mea culpa) at a presentation from Jawbone, the maker of the Jawbone Up activity monitor. The hype is all about every gadget in the world becoming connected, so that now your watch can talk to your thermostat and your pacemaker can chat up your television set. If it's all about "things connecting with things," it's ultimately meaningless, argued Andrew Rosenthal, group manager for Jawbone's wellness platform. However interesting IoT is as technology, it only becomes meaningful when it connects back to people, he said.

Perhaps that's overstated to the extent that devices communicating with each other might function better together. But in a health and wellness context we want the payoff to be a more personal benefit of how they work together.

Lemke cited Jawbone's partnership with Whistle, maker of a pet activity monitor, as an example of a productive combination, one that not only generates data but makes an emotional connection. "Knowing that my dog, who I love, isn't walking enough activates me to walk, too," she said. "So quantified self doesn't mean it's just about me -- it's about all the things around me."

"What we're trying to do is figure out how do we take advantage of all the technology that is out there, all the data that's out there," Humana's Bierbower said, with the goal of discovering what she calls "moments of influence."

Those are moments "when we can deliver the right information at the right time, through the right intervention," she said. For example, instead of sending out an annual email reminding people to get a flu shot, she would like to deliver that reminder in the moment when a member of the health plan walks into a CVS where flu shots are available.

By the way, Lemke disputes the "popular notion that everybody drops their Fitbit after a short period of time," saying that among the population her firm monitors, the average history for wearing a Fitbit or other activity monitor is 270 days, "which is more than enough time to either have a baby or form a lifelong habit." Of course, as early adopters of the service, those folks may well be Silicon Valley obsessives. Or maybe The Activity Exchange is doing something right, reinforcing a good habit. Either way, it does show that sticking with the program is possible.

"This is why I love data -- the data tells a slightly different story," Lemke added.

Bierbower said it's important to establish that activity monitors aren't just for techies, or for the ultra-fit. "It's just like when people hear the words 'quantified self' -- when people hear that, that's a really big word, that must not be for me."

Device manufacturers still have some work to do making these devices stylish and simple, she said.

For activity monitors to make a difference, "it has to be something that fits into my daily life," Bierbower said.

For a little more about what I learned at MediFuture, see the video below, courtesy of GuideWell.

The owners of electronic health records aren't necessarily the patients. How much control should they have? Get the new Who Owns Patient Data? issue of InformationWeek Healthcare today.