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Your Fitbit Might Be Ripping You Off

Without more specific analysis, personal health tools tend to leave the "burden of synthesis on the self-tracker."
(Photo: Mile Atanasov/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Mile Atanasov/Shutterstock)

Anyone who has seen real, physical results from using products like MyFitnessPal, Fitbit, or Jawbone knows that using an app to track your weight-loss goals can really work. But compared to what information you could be getting about your body, you’re actually getting ripped off a little.

Case in point: A group of computer-science researchers at the University of Washington wanted to know whether giving people much more information about themselves via a fitness-tracking app would make those people healthier. Their answer was a resounding yes. People who got more data about their own physical habits were more likely to change their lifestyles for the healthier.

The researchers were able to get the self-trackers to change their habits just by supplying them with additional information about themselves.

Acknowledging that existing health-tracking technologies provide only, as the recent study puts it, “extremely low-level data views”—in other words, they're essentially glorified pedometers—the researchers recruited 14 participants between ages 23 and 66 to use a fairly basic activity-diary app called Moves (which Facebook recently acquired) on their smartphones for a month. The app passively recorded the users' activities, as well as where they went.

Throughout the month, the researchers interviewed the participants about whether the app was useful. With data collected from Moves, the researchers also identified 13 “cuts,” or informational subsets, that the app doesn't normally report to users, such as transit type, food places, and abnormal days. The researchers then used the information to create detailed graphs, tables, and maps about each person’s habits and activity levels and showed each person their elaborated data set. The participants then rated the efficacy of the “cut” data in relation to the Moves data.

Predictably, the participants found the detailed data more useful. Also, the researchers were able to get the self-trackers to change their habits just by supplying them with additional information about themselves. “I was somewhat surprised to find that the tools helped some participants identify and learn about goals they hadn’t articulated,” says Sean Munson, one of the engineering professors that conducted the study. (One participant responded: “If I notice that I’m most active on Tuesdays, then obviously there’s something about Tuesdays that I should start doing on other days.”)

The quantified-self phenomenon has 69 percent of American adults tracking some aspect of their health—14 percent of those people use technology to do so—so it’s a shame, the researchers write, that current tools interpret the data they collect so minimally, leaving the “burden of synthesis on the self-tracker.”

In response, the researchers plan to develop tools targeting specific aspects of people’s life goals, including diet and exercise. “We had hoped the study would help us learn which cuts and visualizations were most helpful,” Munson says, “but instead we learned that there’s a lot of variation in what study participants found most and least helpful. This is something we hope to investigate more in the future.”

Regardless, Munson hopes that his group's results help developers who make life-logging and self-tracking tools build better products. "There’s a great opportunity," he says, "to make this data more useful to the people who collect it."

Rosie Spinks contributed reporting.