This might be murky territory to wade into this week, considering all the news around Facebook. But consider this: some 200 million people worldwide own a connected wearable device, such as a Fitbit, Apple Watch or a Garmin. Hundreds of millions use apps such as MapMyRun, Runkeeper, or Apple Health to track steps taken, miles walked or run, hours slept, and calories both consumed and expended. But some ten years into this wearable device/fitness app market, remarkably little is shared from the treasure trove of information that the leading companies possess. By comparison, we see these aggregated data reports in so many other corners in tech and media. Akamai has its ‘State of the Internet’ report. App Annie releases all sorts of reports on app data and usage.
I think this is a missed opportunity for the wearables industry, in two respects. First, as the devices improve and the data becomes more accurate, it’s likely there are findings or trends that could prove valuable from a health outcomes perspective. Second, the leading companies could use some of the data they collect, responsibly and at an aggregate level, in fun and interesting ways, and to differentiate their offerings.
Let’s start by giving credit to the fitness/wearables industry. The leading companies have, so far, acted responsibly with respect to their customers’ data. You haven’t received an email from your health insurance provider raising your premiums because your Fitbit step count went down by half last year. Nor is Asics trying to sell you high-end sneakers, based on your 7-minute miles tracked by their Runkeeper App. So, prior to discussing what these companies might do with this data, the ground rule should be that individual fitness and health data should never be shared or sold, especially without the user’s express permission and with 100% transparency regarding what’s being made available. A good example of how this is done right is the Strava segments and leaderboard, where their subscribers opt-in to compare their performance on a particular route or ride.
With that out of the way, I’d love to see companies such as Fitbit, Under Armour, and Apple release some aggregate data from all the activity they track. Some of it can be fun and trivial, such as what is the highest number of steps taken by someone in a single day last year? Are there some cities or countries where people walk or exercise more? How might it differ seasonally? Does walking more have any impact on heart rate measurements?
I also think these companies could use the data to increase engagement with their customers. There are primitive examples already, such as ‘run 10 miles this week and get 50% off a T-shirt”. But how about some more interesting contests, such as a Boston vs. New York ‘step challenge’, where, adjusting for population, which city has the highest number of average steps over a certain period? There are all sorts of opportunities to create competitions between not only users but across cities, companies, and so on. This could be a fun incentive to get people outside and active.
For the fitness set, there are myriad geeky possibilities. Take running, as an example. What’s the most frequent time of day people run? Across the zillions of miles tracked every day, what’s the average distance for a run, or time? How many people run more than twice a week? That sorta stuff.
And at an individual level, I’d love to know more. Right now, the only comparison I can set up on my Fitbit is steps compared to other friends with Fitbits I’ve selected. But how do my steps/sleep/other activity compare across other cohorts, such as age, gender, location, season, weather, length of device ownership, and so on?
Then there’s the health side of the equation, which could become more interesting over time as there are more devices that are tracking sleep, ongoing heart rate, etc. How do sleep patterns vary by age? What % of those over the age of 50 get up more than once a night? How do some of the fitness/exercise patterns tracked by these devices/apps correlate to what we know about national health outcomes?
The enterprise piece is also interesting. Companies have been buying Fitbits and other like devices for their employees, in rather large numbers, for years. They do fun things like run step count contests, and so on. But it would be interesting to hear, even at an anecdotal level, the impact of these devices on employee health. Do companies that run wearable ‘programs’ see any benefits in terms of employee health and wellness? Does this translate into cost savings? The wearable firms might already share some of this data in their ‘pitch’ to corporate accounts, but little is known beyond that closed circle.
There’s a sense that the wearable device and fitness app category is stagnating. Fitbit had a crummy fourth quarter. Perhaps this data opportunity can give the industry a jolt. And over time, as these devices and apps track more categories of activity, and with higher levels of accuracy, the data will similarly evolve from being merely fun and interesting to compelling and useful.