Those data streams allow Healthrageous to give customized advice. For example, the program might ask whether a user wants to lower blood pressure through diet and exercise or with the help of medication. “We could then respond to those who say they want to do it naturally and say research has found that people who exceed 10,000 steps per day have a greater likelihood of bringing systolic blood pressure down to 120,” says Lee. Users would then try to increase the amount they walk and wear pedometers to assess whether they were succeeding, with the software providing encouragement in a variety of ways.
Healthrageous is currently marketing its service to large employers and health plans and charging them per-user fees. So far, Lee says, the company has seven clients—including the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary—and about 1,600 users who will generate approximately $500,000 in revenue this year. But Lee says that Healthrageous, which has raised $8.5 million from investors, has plans to open the service to the general public next year.
Lee believes Healthrageous’s value will increase dramatically if more people begin using the service. That’s already happened with companies like Google and Netflix, whose algorithms build on users’ previous behavior to customize ads or movie suggestions. “We need large volumes of people moving through the system so we can hone pattern recognition technology we have been developing,” he says. “If we can match up who you are with changes you focus on, then we can start to map key personal characteristics that lead to successful behavioral change.”
The real-life data collected by such services is already proving enticing to marketers. PatientsLikeMe makes money by selling users’ health data to pharmaceutical companies. Jacqueline Thong, founder of Ubiqi, a startup that developed a free phone app migraine sufferers can use to track what sets off their headaches, says she’s also been approached by organizations interested in tapping the company’s database.
Other self-tracking companies are making their databases available to developers for free, with the hope that they will create new apps that bring in more users. For instance, Zeo, a startup located in Newtonville, Massachusetts, currently makes its money by selling a popular sleep-tracking device. But Zeo also claims to have amassed the largest at-home sleep database in the world. It has opened up that database to developers and scientists so they can conduct their own research or integrate Zeo’s device with other self-tracking systems.
As it has with Facebook, selling personal data is certain to raise privacy concerns. Healthrageous’s Lee says his company plans to market the insights it gleans from its data, rather than the raw data itself. PatientsLikeMe, however, explicitly tells users that any information they share—except identifying details, such as name and e-mail address—may be shared with pharmaceutical companies or other partners. Given that PatientsLikeMe has more than 100,000 members, users seem confident that the tools it offers, and the hope of medical advances generated from their data, are worth the loss of privacy.