The Quantified Self and Big Data: A Match Made in Corporate?

During Apple’s announcement of the iWatch in March, a sizable amount of stage-time was spent promoting health features. Tim Cook talked about the activity monitoring that is possible through the device’s built-in sensors, and how all of the activity would be quantified, analyzed, and interpreted automatically via the watch’s software, allowing individuals to monitor and track their activity levels over time. No Apple product announcement is complete without carefully calculated emotional stimulation, and this time was no exception, with marathon-runner Christy Turlington Burns appearing in video and then live on stage, promoting her approval of Apple’s latest product category. With most of the announcement’s focus being on health, and the remainder focusing on app integration, it’s interesting that Apple’s watch announcement spent very little time focusing on their new time-piece’s value as, well, a time-piece.

Over the past 15-20 years, Apple has established itself as a company that can identify markets that are ripe for disruption, and launch meticulously designed products which often come to define the paradigm for each product’s respective industry. From digital music sales to smartphone industrial design, Apple is remarkably consistent in its ability to execute market disruption on a regular basis. It would be naïve, then, to assume that Apple’s focus on fitness tracking and health quantification was merely coincidental.unnamed

The health/fitness tracking industry is projected to grow at a rate of 173% in 2015, according to a recent report by market research firm IDC. Fitness wearable company Fitbit’s recently successful IPO indicates that IDC is not alone in their optimism. Apple is actually relatively late to the game, with rivals Google and Microsoft fitness bands having launched fitness tracking platforms in June and October (respectively) of last year. More established players like Garmin have been in the fitness tracking market since as far back as 2003. Even so, Apple’s prior track record gives credence to the belief that the fitness/health tracking market will only continue to grow, and Fitbit’s comfortable stock price suggests that there is at least room for two companies in this market.

The question has been asked, though; is there any intrinsic benefit to the quantification of fitness data, or is the emerging industry simply a product of humanity’s natural desire to quantify for themselves? In a recent article analyzing the success of the aforementioned Fitbit IPO, TIME published a thoughtful exploration of this question. The article detailed some interesting data points about the fitness tracking industry, which shed some light on the practical role that fitness tracking can have in societies. Two of the points are especially relevant to this discussion:

  1. “Over 80% of consumers said an important benefit of wearable tech is its potential to make healthcare more convenient (PwC)”
  2. “68% of consumers would wear employer-provided wearables streaming anonymous data to an information pool in exchange for lower health insurance costs. (PwC)”

The article’s perspective on the industry is decidedly business-oriented, and the data points contain none of the utopian, Pollyanna-style lexicon that permeates most consumer-facing personal technology websites (examples include this, this, and this). This perspective, coupled with the author’s apparent awareness of the realities of modern business strategy paradigms, reveal the contemporary genesis of a new world; a world in which our health information is open and accessible to organizations with sufficient interest and means. Fitness tracking companies now stand to become the gatekeepers for the fitness-related statistics of society, with only privacy policies and price tags standing between corporations and the detailed outlines of our fitness histories.

There are plenty of interested parties. Healthcare providers, businesses that provide healthcare plans for employees (which means, by law, almost all US employers), and marketers from a multitude of industries would all be interested in such data, and fitness tracking companies now hold the keys to that trove.

This isn’t a prediction of the future; it’s an analysis of the present. A report from the Motley Fool reveals that Fitbit is already making ten percent of its revenue from “corporate wellness programs”, which include “deals with over 50 Fortune 500 companies, according to the CFO”. A Washington Post article from last year noted BP’s 2013 rollout of incentive-based healthcare plans that included fitness tracking as an integrated component. Google recently started testing a dedicated medical tracking device that is explicitly targeted at the healthcare industry. The new reality of the “quantified self” is already unfolding, and as has been explained, there is much more to this industry than meets the consumer’s eye.

With this context, it now becomes clear why Apple, along with Google and Microsoft, have decided to enter the fitness tracking sphere. All three of these tech giants are in the business of building platforms which can become foundations for entire industries. Our health data is an important aspect of several industries, and these companies have realized that. The race to monetize this data is on, and the fitness tracking industry is evolving at the speed of technology. These developments might bode well for consumers, or they might not. One thing seems clear, though; when it comes to fitness tracking, even though we buy the product, we are still the product.

Menachem Goldstein, Graduate Student

Master of Arts in Emerging Media

Loyola University Maryland 

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