It’s no surprise that the health industry has taken so strongly to fitness tracking devices: every day, these gadgets stream information on a level that previously was only possible from a medical checkup – which takes place only once a year, if at all.
When Microsoft entered the crowded fitness tracker market with its Band device 18 months ago, the big news wasn’t in the device itself. The real story was the launch of Microsoft Health, a wellness tracking platform powered by cloud computing. It wasn’t a first, but the entry of the software giant into an area where the early running seemed to be made by Google Fit and Apple Health was deeply significant.
For one thing, it meant that health tracking was now a priority for a company focused both on leveraging the cloud and making sense of Big Data – the ability to turn massive volumes of information into business intelligence.
It also meant that, regardless of the success of the Band, the platform would evolve to take advantage of the intensifying stream of health data being pumped out by millions of other wearable devices. For now, that market is dominated by Fitbit, Apple Watch, Garmin, Samsung Gear and Jawbone UP. However, a strong push from Chinese manufacturers like Lenovo, Xiaomi and Huawei is likely to change the early shape of the industry.
Even in South Africa, fitness bands or activity trackers are beginning to graduate from fad to trend to mainstream. The local market is led by Fitbit, which at one stage threatened to become the generic name for activity trackers globally. In an interview last year, US president Barack Obama said he was planning to get a Fitbit – but appeared to be talking about the category rather than the brand. He suggested he might consider an Apple Watch.
In the USA, Fitbit sells two-thirds of all activity trackers. For wearables in general, including smart watches, its share drops below half, but it still leads the market. In South Africa, it helped that it was endorsed by Discovery Health, which gave members of the Vitality wellness programme bonus points for using the device. Discovery did the same for brands like Garmin, Nike, Fitbug, Jawbone, Polar and Adidas.
In the near future, it is likely that medical insurance companies will plug into the devices as well as the platforms. Since Microsoft Health also acts as a hub for data from other monitoring platforms, like MapMyFitness, MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper, there is little reason it can’t become a catch-all health data aggregator.
Combine this kind of functionality with information collected by health practitioners – including nutritional assessments and medical check-ups – and it becomes possible to make precise connections between behaviour and health. The significance of the role of big data here is that recommendations can then be made across large populations as well as for specific individuals.
Right now, many individuals who are committed to healthy living depend heavily on health magazines that offer glib and generalised advice as silver bullets, when in fact this represents a scattergun approach. In the near future, big health data will mean that every individual will potentially have access to highly personalised diagnostics and advice.
There will be many pitfalls along this path, such as “wrist spam”, when too much data is offered, and false alerts, when people are for example wrongly warned of impending heart attacks. Privacy will become an increasing challenge, and laws will probably be passed to dictate what information health and life insurance companies may collect, how it must be stored, and how they can use that information to weight insurance premiums.
The biggest threat of all, however, is likely to be security: in the same way many hackers now make a living from stealing financial data, many will in future try to harvest health and activity data for sale to the highest bidders.
The stakes are high, with massive benefits for the main stakeholders: individuals managing their own health destinies; cloud computing companies hosting the data; practitioners providing scientifically tailored care; researchers getting the most accurate insights yet from trials; and insurance companies requiring interventions when anomalies appear. For each of these, it’s the small insights lurking in the big data that will make all the difference.
There will be many not-so-obvious stakeholders too, in particular the companies that manufacture wearable monitoring devices. Knowing what makes the biggest difference in big data will aslo depend increasingly on these small increments in data that each of us is streaming into our devices, and from there into the world.