Skip to Content

Measured Progress

Apps to track the health of individuals are most powerful when we use them collectively.

A new breed of smart, connected tools and apps is enabling a band of early adopters to track and analyze their personal health data. This type of intimate relationship with health information has the potential to transform our perceptions of disease and risk. It can help people take earlier and more effective steps to address developing health problems (see “The Measured Life).

Yet unless we carefully consider how to introduce these new applications to a broader population, a significant opportunity will be lost. The “quantified self” movement risks oversupplying enthusiasts with new gadgets while failing to reach those who would benefit most. Many people with much to gain are not served by this trend today, whether the barrier is limited financial resources, low digital literacy, or just plain lack of interest. We must find ways to reach them.

Simply giving those people access to the techniques pioneered by early adopters won’t be enough: usually, the biggest barrier to good health is not a lack of detailed personal information about what healthy habits are and how well an individual is maintaining them. More often, people know what they need to do but are prevented by a lack of necessities such as nourishing food, clean air and water, a sense of physical security, and a supportive social environment. To help the many people in that position, health-tracking technology must deliver more than just extra, richer information.

How do we help the self-quantification movement reach this broader population? Perhaps by revisiting the unit of analysis. Instead of equipping every person with tracking devices, we should devise ways to track, measure, and meaningfully present the findings at the community level. By quantifying communities, not just individuals, we can unleash the power of data to propel change.

Imagine the impact of being able to see extremely precise, real-time measurements of the air pollution that affects hundreds of children as they wait for school buses. Informing one child’s parents about poor air quality at the bus stop may do nothing more than frustrate. Informing hundreds of parents and activists that many embedded sensors found consistently high pollution may inspire action that leads to change. That’s the vision of a project called CitiSense, an early foray into this type of participatory environmental monitoring and tracking. Another, Asthmapolis, pinpoints environmental triggers by tracking every puff of its participants’ inhalers to reveal when and where asthma patients use their drugs. Both ventures are showcasing the most transformative power of these new data-gathering technologies: to provide diverse communities with information that can improve the long-term health and well-being of their members as a group.

Rachel Maguire directs research on the impact of future health technologies at the think tank Institute for the Future.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

This startup wants to copy you into an embryo for organ harvesting

With plans to create realistic synthetic embryos, grown in jars, Renewal Bio is on a journey to the horizon of science and ethics.

VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence

On key metrics, a VR experience elicited a response indistinguishable from subjects who took medium doses of LSD or magic mushrooms.

This nanoparticle could be the key to a universal covid vaccine

Ending the covid pandemic might well require a vaccine that protects against any new strains. Researchers may have found a strategy that will work.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.