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Rewriting Life

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.

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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.

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