Accurately predicting the meaning of changes in communication patterns is likely to be challenge. For example, the cell-phone profile of a person who stays home and stops calling friends for several days in order to meet a work deadline would be similar to that of someone who stays in bed and stops answering the phone because his depression is getting worse. But Singh says the algorithms underlying the app are flexible and can be tuned to be more or less sensitive to behavior changes, and that user feedback will also improve them. “With more data and users, we expect to get better at predictions,” says Madan.
The initial release of DailyData gives only the user access to his or her results. But, Madan says, eventually the alerts could go to family members or caregivers, who could then intervene if the patient seems to be on a downward spiral.
Apps of this type may worry privacy advocates. Revelations about how Apple and Google use location data caused a public outcry last month. But in the case of DailyData, the benefit to the user may outweigh privacy concerns. Continuous monitoring via mobile phone could give both patients and their physicians better insight into health problems, says Deborah Estrin, founding director of the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing at the University of California, Los Angeles. A doctor treating a patient for depression, for example, typically only gets to see the patient for a few minutes once a week or once a month, and the patient’s mood that day could be influenced by something that happened that morning. “You have the opportunity to look more objectively at what the past two weeks or months have been like,” says Estrin. “It’s so powerful to leverage the technology that people carry around willingly. People are already harvesting this type of information to serve marketing,” she says. “Why not use it to help serve people themselves?”
Joseph Kvedar, director of the Center for Connected Health at Harvard Medical School, says that if such an app is to be adopted widely, it’s essential that it collect the data automatically. “You have to make it really easy,” he says. “Require even the least little step and people lose interest.”
On the flip side, a growing body of research suggests that giving people information on their behavior can benefit their health. “When we measure something and share it back with individual, it raises awareness in a special way,” says Kvedar. “It gives insight into how lifestyle is connected to health in a way you can’t get without quantification.”
Ginger.io plans to market its software to health-care providers, pharmaceutical companies, health insurers, large employers, and chronic-patient communities. These groups would offer the app to patients or employees, and would in turn get a set of aggregate statistics about and trends in the health and behavior of these groups. “For a [health-care] provider or academic researchers, this might help them understand how people behave when they’re symptomatic,” says Madan. A pharmaceutical company might gain insight into links between behavior and medication and health, such as whether physically active people get better faster. “These are all novel data that they never had access to before,” says Madan.
The company is working with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital on a pilot study of patients with inflammatory bowel disorder and Crohn’s disease, both painful intestinal conditions. Physicians will try to determine whether behavior changes prior to a flare-up.