Your personal fitness data intrigues academics

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Researchers at UC San Diego and UC Irvine have launched a project to examine using data from personal fitness monitors to help scientists explore public health and social science issues.

The project, funded with a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will survey users, companies that sell the monitors and academics who might use the data. The project will also examine the technology and ethical issues. Once they complete this step, researchers and funders will decide whether a long-term project is feasible and worthwhile.

For now, the participants are simply intrigued by the wealth of data people gather with pedometers, skin temperature sensors, sleep monitors and other personal fitness devices.

“This is really a broad effort to look at a variety of devices collecting self-tracking data,” said Jerry Sheehan, a researcher at UC San Diego, where he is chief of staff at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. “The goal is to understand how this individually facilitated data can be looked at by folks looking at larger social science, academic and public health questions.”

Currently, Sheehan said, people hand over much of the data they collect to the companies that sell the sensors, such as Fitbit, which measures how many steps you take, how you sleep and (with a wireless scale) how much you weigh, and BodyMedia, an armband that measures calories burned, activity intensity and the quality of a person’s sleep. Some smart phones also collect this kind of data.

The new effortt, dubbed the Health Data Exploration project, will look at whether users might be willing to share their data with researchers as well, probably in a form that would allow them to remain anonymous. Privacy concerns will be one of the issues into which the project delves.

Sheehan said 60 percent of Americans currently track some of their health data, with about 21 percent of them using some form of technology, from a personal monitor to a computer spreadsheet.

As an example of how the personal data might drive public health policy, researchers might one day look at whether living in an urban area designed with a lot of public spaces increases a person’s physical activity. Or they might examine how living near a place with a high level of atmospheric pollution increases the risk of asthma.

“This is an interesting moment in time,” Sheehan said. “You couldn’t have done this project had it not been for the maturation of these devices and the ubiquity of sensing out there. If you combine that with electronic medical records you can really begin to look at these bigger questions. All of the stars have aligned.”

For more information about the project, see its web site here.

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