To enjoy the full Mail & Guardian online experience: please upgrade your browser
06 Aug 2015 15:10
Eric Friedman Fitbit
Wander around Sandton
City or any big shopping mall in South Africa on a Saturday morning and you
will notice more and more shoppers sporting a variety of wrist adornments. Some
of these are still conventional watches but an increasing percentage of them
are what those who love buzzwords call “wearables”.
Wearables are devices
that record a number of elements of activity and are while the name is new the
The pedometer, a device that measures the number of steps you
take, has been around for decades, but its only recently that companies have
created a set of services that provide feedback to users by linking in social
media and adding more measurements.
Eric Friedman, chief
technology officer and co-founder of Fitbit, speaking at the Discovery
Vitality Summit on Thursday, explained that when you make it easy for people to
measure the exercise they’re doing the amount of enthusiasm they have to
continue exercising increases.
He pointed out that
physical activity was a key part in combatting the modern epidemic of obesity.
“Two out of five adults globally are obese today, but it only takes a moderate
amount of physical exercise to cut this,” he said.
Fitbit was founded
after Freidman and his co-founder and Fitbit chef executive James Park saw how the
Nintendo Wii used motion sensors to get video gamers off the couch and
exercising. The problem that they faced was that there were already cheap
pedometers out there but if people wanted to track their progress they had to
manually record this. They added a radio to the device and used smartphones and
computers to sync the data.
Friedman added that the
other element that has helped people get engaged with the concept of monitoring
their exercise is the use of the step as a measurement unit for physical
activity. “This is a more understandable unit than the calorie or other
measures of exercise and this has been borne out by feedback from users. We
have had feedback where we were asked how many steps there were in a banana or
how many steps a swimming workout would count as.”
“The one insight we got
was that it takes very little to get people moving, and then it doesn’t take
much to get them to move a little more each day,” he said. These motivations
can take the form of positive reinforcements built into the system, including
feedback from the devices – such as the device vibrating when you reach you
target number of steps for the day – or through challenges with friends or
other community members. “We have seen that users do about 400 extra steps per
day for every extra friend they have, up to a certain point.”
The story of Fitbit is
one that is being repeated across the healthcare industry and that is the story
of big data. Many organisations are looking at the information they collect on
a daily basis and pondering how they leverage this data to improve the service
they can provide toothier users and, more importantly, how they can use data to
improve the company’s bottom line.
Dr Jonathon Broomberg,
Discovery Health chief executive, illustrated this point by saying that Discovery
members that exercised regularly cost the scheme 15% less because they were
generally more healthy and those that activated the Healthy Food benefit bought
6% more foods that qualified as healthy under the programme. It was this kind
of information that enables the company to structure future programmes to keep
its members healthier and consequently improve the bottom line of the scheme.
The danger of
organisations gathering so much data on individual users is that it has to be
secure and Friedman says that while governments do dictate regulations
regarding the storage and protection of personal data, its up to the individual
companies to make it easy for users to understand what information they are
exposing to public view and what is being kept private.
The adoption of fitness
trackers such as Fitbit has not reached the mass market yet – Fitbit has sold
24-million units – but as more people look for help to get into shape or up
their fitness with the help of technology the growth may just be about to start.
So those people out and
about in the mall may not look like they are doing anything, but maybe they’re
just trying to hit their target number of steps.
Create Account | Lost Your Password?