Thanks to a recent explosion of wearable devices and continuing improvements in smartphone sensors, we’re collecting more data about ourselves than ever before: steps taken, sleep had, calories burned, distance run, and many other metrics.
There’s still plenty of room for improvement in terms of health tracking and sensor technology, but the basics are comprehensively covered, and the data is pouring in. So what, actually, do we do with it?
The next challenge for developers is finding meaning in our wearable data, turning an endless table of figures into something that’s useful and life-enhancing. Knowing your average step count for the year is one thing; knowing what to do about it is another.
Working Harder … And Smarter
The process of setting goals—exercise, steps, sleep—is now a familiar one that underpins just about any activity tracking app out there. Yet some users are struggling in making sense of this data or finding the motivation to keep recording it without any ultimate payoff.
There are several groups of people working on the problem. TicTrac, for example, pulls in data from trackers and apps to provide a deep look at your activities and health. The platform is based around core areas (like fitness or sleep), enabling users to both visualize their data and act on it.
One of the more promising platforms in this area—though still in the early stages of development—is the Web app Exist. It imports data from wearables, apps and services to build up an overall picture of users’ health, attempting to find patterns and trends you can then act upon.
The number of plugins Exist already supports is impressive: Fitbit, Jawbone, Twitter, RescueTime, Last.fm and even weather forecast feeds. Many more integrations are expected further down the line as the platform grows, and there’s an API in the pipeline to make this easier.
“We were inspired to create Exist after frustration using activity trackers on their own,” explains co-founder Belle Cooper. “There’s so much more you can do with your steps and sleep data in the context of your entire life. It can be pretty boring to just watch that 10k steps goal every day, not to mention the motivation it provides fades pretty quickly. We wanted to build on top of those raw numbers to provide something more useful.”
That usefulness manifests itself in various different ways, such as charting an average sleep time or step count over many months. Some of the correlations the app can draw are pretty bizarre—like the relationship between how far you walk each week and how much you tweet—but as Exist adds more integrations it will become more helpful to its users.
In The Mood
One of Exist’s manual features is also one of the most important. Users can opt in to rate their mood at 9pm each evening, which can then be charted against steps, sleep and other data. Is too little shut-eye putting you in a bad frame of mind? Is a lot of music good or bad for your mood? It’s also handy at spotting something out-of-the-ordinary—a sudden shift in average bedtime perhaps, or an unexpected surge in productivity—and alerting users to something they otherwise wouldn’t have noticed.
“We track the strength of correlations over time,” Cooper says, “so users can see that, for example, last year they were more likely to have a good day on the weekend, but this is less true lately. We can’t provide the reasons why this is—that’s up to you to find out—but we uncover patterns that users may not have noticed on their own.”
Exist gets smarter over time too, using data from the past 90 days to suggest new targets for the future. If you play tennis every Wednesday, for example, Exist suggests a higher step goal for that day, without interfering with the overall average.
“This is built-in and requires no effort from our users apart from checking Exist each day to see what their goal is,” Cooper explains. “It actually becomes fun to see what goal you’ve been set—or set for yourself through your actions, essentially—for the day. This is one of our biggest aims for Exist: to make your data useful and actionable with as little input from you as possible.”
Drowning In Data
Right now, the Exist team consists of two people working in their spare time, so progress is gradual. Alongside new integrations with third-party hardware and software, iOS and Android apps are imminent. The aim is to collect as much information as painlessly as possible.
“I think context is something we’re still trying to achieve in terms of wearables and all personal data,” Cooper says. “Seeing your step count for the day without the context of what else was happening in your life gives you a really skewed view of your progress and can make it disheartening to work on building healthy habits or achieving goals.”
“Our lives are so connected and interwoven that it’s impossible to get a picture of even one aspect, like your health, from just one or two data points. We need to find better ways to connect all of this data, and allow the user to provide context for outliers in their data.”
For example: If you’re suffering from a bad cold, it’s probably better for you to stay in bed than try and hit that 5,000 step target for the day—your fitness app should be intelligent enough to recognize this and adapt accordingly.
More data is required, and (as the data load increases) more intelligent ways of sorting through it. As developers catch up with the wearable boom, apps like Exist are going to be invaluable in telling us not just how we’re doing but what we should be doing next.
Lead image courtesy of FitBit; screenshots by Exist and Jawbone