Honesty. The killer app of bio-metric data?

As a researcher, I spend a lot of time thinking about bias. I’m constantly working to make sure external bias doesn’t affect my work, and that I myself don’t accidentally introduce my own biases to research outcomes. There are a lot of common types of bias (feel free to get lost in this list over on Quora for a while). The first bias that pops off the page in the context of what I want to talk about today is “Self-Serving Attributions: Explanations for one’s successes that credit internal, dispositional factors and explanations for one’s failures that blame external, situational factors.” So what does this have to do with bio-metric data?

For the last few months I’ve been carrying around a fitbit. It’s basically just a digital pedometer, but what makes it interesting is that it wirelessly syncs with a tiny base-station every time I walk by the computer in my apartment, then broadcasts the data to the internet and any fitbit “friends” I have on the fitbit social website. My colleague Chad at the IPG Lab in NYC and my Dad in Chicago also have fitbits and can both log in any time and see how active I’ve been, and I can do the same for them. I can also see all of my own data cataloged, aggregated, and displayed in the form of graphs or comparative indices.

When I think about myself, I feel like I’m a pretty active guy. I walk to work, I get out at lunch, I exercise fairly frequently, and yet somehow I am magically not losing weight. My self-serving bias tells me it’s clearly my bad genes or the extra butter snuck into all the food I eat at restaurants. But, then I look at the data and it forces me to be honest with myself.

The simple reality is that on a normal day I’m sitting on my butt or asleep 84% of the time. The size of that big old lazy gray pie slice below came as a bit of a shock the first time I saw it, because it created a moment of uncomfortable cognitive dissonance the moment I became aware of my own bias.

All that data stacks up over time and I’m left with a very precise picture of why my love handles refuse to melt. This is undeniably uncomfortable at first, but it quickly becomes normal once I accept the truth of the data, and that’s where things start getting interesting.

My Dad has lost 50 pounds since we started watching each others’ tracked fitness goals, I’ve lost about 12 pounds, and we both agree that our success is due largely to being more honest with ourselves, but also in large part because we’re more honest with each other. There’s a constant social pressure to keep ourselves healthy and keep each other healthy. The fitbit, however, is just the beginning of what’s possible.

Companies like Massive Health are creating smart phone apps that turn the phone itself into a networked bio-metric sensor, enabling individuals to track their own health metrics and allowing doctors to get a much more complete picture of how healthy their patients are. This is cool by itself, since it democratizes health care in a very real way and increases the quality of preventive care. The aspect of this, however, that really gets me excited, isn’t how I’ll interact with my Doctor using these new apps, but all the new ways in which I’ll be able to interact with people like my Dad, or my friends and my co-workers.

For example, we know that one of the most corrosive factors for human health are high levels of chronic stress. It would be a fairly simple thing to measure stress levels in real time using a wrist-band or watch with bio-metric sensors that’s synced via blue-tooth to a smart phone, which in turn broadcasts the data to the web. I could broadcast my stress level directly to my boss or Dad. On days when my stress levels are spiking repeatedly, my boss could use the information to reconsider giving me that extra project, or asking me to stay late, or he could simply walk over to see what’s up instead of delegating via email as usual. My Dad could set up an alert to have the system ping him when I have a particularly bad day and then give me a call, increasing my sense of community and well-being despite the fact that we live on different ends of the country. A prolonged period of stress could trigger a reminder to myself to sign up for a massage and get more sleep.

The point is, more measurement brings greater understanding. Seeing the bio-metric data of others has the amazing effect of encouraging empathy. This brings up another form of bias from that list on Quora: “Actor/Observer Difference: The tendency to see other people’s behavior as dispositionally caused but focusing more on the role of situational factors when explaining one’s own behavior.” In other words, without the window into my bio-metric stress data, I’m just an asshole to outside observers on the days I’m stressed, but with that data, suddenly it can be tied to stimuli, and just like that big grey pie slice in the chart above, it can surprise the hell out of someone.

I won’t go into it in too much detail here, but I can think of a million ways that ubiquitous web-broadcast bio-metric data can be put to use for the good of all.

As one example of the way this data was used in the real world, I’ll show you a case-study my lab did with CNET. As part of a shop-along ethnography study commissioned by CNET, the lab hooked up a group of people with bio-metric bracelets and watched them shop for electronics in a store with and without CNET’s shopping app (it provides reviews and info on the items people were shopping for in the store). They found that people’s stress levels declined when given all that extra data via the shopping app to help them make the right decision, and that stress levels increased when “helped” by the store clerks. You can check out more about the study on the blog.

I truly think this is the start of something big. I have no idea where it’s going to lead, but I think it’s going to be real step in the evolution of media, and possibly humanity. People increasingly deal with each other via digital media, and in doing so give up a lot of the body language we rely on as humans to understand each other. Companies like Eloqua are just barely starting to scratch the surface of what’s possible in online media once you start listening for “digital body language.” Just imagine what all this new bio-metric data will do for humanizing the web.

It’s so important that everyone in technology today understand one fundamental truth: at the other end of the internet connection is a human being. Let’s never get so lost in the data that we forget that. To not do so would be to commit my favorite form of bias: “Wishful thinking is the formation of beliefs and making decisions according to what might be pleasing to imagine instead of by appealing to evidence, rationality or reality.”


Quantifiable Excuse

In my last post, I wrote that I was terribly busy and would blog more, and in the next post you’ll see here, I intend to talk about the idea of quantifying your life and my own experiments with bio-metric feedback loops and passively collected data. It dawned on me as I was writing the next post that I could create something that fits right in the sweet spot between the two, which wound up being this post.

I say I’m too busy to write, but am I? Today, I have some time on my hands, which is why today, and not yesterday or tomorrow, I will quantify my excuse: I have been too busy to blog and probably will be again soon. Let’s have a look at the data.

Following is a graph with a little over a year’s worth of data across three data points that encompass about 90% of what I spend my waking “work” time doing–the progress I made on the novel I’ve been writing (yes, the novel) against a guesstimate of the total number of research projects I was actively working on (all of which require lots of reading and writing as I delve into and explain new topics) and, of course, the blog posts I’ve written. Novel progress is defined simply by the word count of each successive draft I saved over time.


Before I graphed this I kept guiltily finding myself wondering if I fall into the clichéd camp of people who excitedly start a blog, pump out a ton of posts at first, then fade away as the upkeep of the blog outweighs the benefits of having a blog. However, as I see the ebb and flow of all my work in one place, I realize that I’m constantly writing. Suddenly instead of feeling guilty, I simply feel at capacity; less like a cliché and more like the super-smart Seth Godin, who famously (in my circles at least) decided not to use Twitter in order to focus on his blog and writing books. The reality of time is that it’s finite, and is one of the few truly universally limiting factors in life. So, I do think that as the novel writing process winds to a close (I finally managed to send a near-final draft off to a friend to edit) I’ll shift back to blogging. But, importantly (to me anyway) I realize now that if I don’t, I’m sure I’ll have a good excuse.

Catching Up

Starting in January 2011 I became the one-man research department for the IPG Media Lab. If you’re not familiar with the Lab, imagine the place where the scarily accurate marketing technology featured in the movie Minority Report was invented, and you have a pretty good idea of what it’s like. (or just press play)

Six months later, I finally have a minute to catch my breath and write a bit. So, sorry if this post is kind of lame–I’m just going to zip through what I’ve been up to. I intend to spice things up a bit moving forward and focus more on cool new tech instead of talking about myself. Anyways, you can get a taste here of the kind of work I’ve been doing lately:

#1. I wrote a lengthy report on Marketing Automation Best Practices for Econsultancy that you can check out here: http://econsultancy.com/us/reports/marketing-automation-best-practices. It’s full of all sorts of fun tid-bits on how robots will be doing your job more efficiently in the immediate future. Yes, I’m serious.

#2. My first big project with the IPG Media Lab was for a cool online video ad network called YuMe. They had this wacky idea that TV isn’t really measured well since it doesn’t account for people simply ignoring ads–e.g. using a trip to the fridge as a low-tech DVR. So, we put together a high-tech way to monitor people as they watched TV and record their attention levels, then did the same for people watching video on the web to see how the two compare. I won’t ruin the surprise, but if you’re interested, my client put together this (slightly over-exuberant) video to show off the results.

High-tech Holidays

Ever since my family switched from whispered phone conversations about who wants what to a 100% adoption rate of Amazon wish lists, Christmas shopping (a task I generally loathe) has gotten much, much easier for me, and I actually get stuff I need and want. The only downside is the lack of spontaneity introduced when everyone knows what they’re getting well in advance of ripping open any wrapping paper. As much as I love the Amazon wish list, and hope never to return to the days of opening poorly fitting sweaters, I think we can do better.

One of my favorite places to shop for odd-ball gifts is Etsy. I mean, where else can you find hand-carved wooden iPad stands, or pillows custom-embroidered with an image of me picking my nose? The problem, of course, is that you have to sift through a ton of crap to find the gems. Etsy has always cultivated a community of people who will hunt out the best stuff for you and then create best-of lists for others to use, which I appreciate. However, this Christmas I discovered a new feature.

You can now search for gifts for people by letting Etsy mine their Facebook profile “likes” and then suggest appropriate gifts. Dad gets a home-made painting of Obama and Rush Limbaugh kung-fu fighting! The girlfriend gets vintage Laura Palmer gear (remember Twin Peaks?)! OK, not really. I know you two occasionally read this blog. But, the point is that I could have gotten these things!

As more and more information about us and our likes and dislikes gets strewn about the web, I’m sure more applications like this will keep popping up. I know everyone is sure we’re heading for some dystopian future because of this trend, but I’m actually pretty optimistic about it. Imagine how rude the person will seem when they approach me at a cocktail party in 2020 and simply start asking me questions without first consulting my online profile. Seems like such a waste of time, when we could instead jump right into the meat of the conversation we were destined to have about why we hate each others’ views. I’m mostly kidding. Seriously, I think this could be cool as long as there’s a nice balance between privacy and utility. I’d like to see more of this kind of thing.

Happy shopping everyone. I wish you a merry capitalist utopia and a debt-free new year.

Cheap, Local, and Immediate is the new Groupon

Have I bought 10 Bikram yoga classes for the low, low price of $39 that I may or may not ever use? Yes. Yes I have. Do I think Groupon will be worth what it is today, or generating half as much revenue in five years? Nope. Not a chance. The only reason why Groupon makes such obscene profits right now is because they brutally rip off the merchants they’re promoting. Groupon’s tactic is nothing new; it’s simply an over-hyped loss-leader distributor. Woot.com has been doing this since 2008 (and in a truly baffling move allow Groupon to advertise on their site–see below), they just didn’t do as good a job of localizing their deals which limited what products and services they could offer.

Notice who's behind the "KA-BOOM" ad? WTF WOOT?

When you consider that Groupon takes 50% of the already deeply discounted services they sell, the only way the sellers could not lose money on the deal is if a good portion of the “overly-optimistic” individuals like myself never show up to claim their deal. Someone might forget to use that 50% off coupon, but no one is going to give back the 20% off plasma TV they ordered. It’s no coincidence that the really amazing offers you see on Groupon and its imitators tend to be high-friction transactions; they tend to ask a lot of the consumer, like showing up for multiple sessions or traveling to a vacation destination mid-week. High friction transactions are never as simple as sitting back and waiting for an ordered product to show up at your door.

What Groupon has done, along with some serious help from the recession, is turned a bunch of people into chronic deal hunters that didn’t used to be. Wired did a great write-up of this trend here. This is a meaningful shift in the way Americans buy things, for sure, but that’s not really what I want to talk about today.

What I’m really interested in is what’s going to come after Groupon. What are the services that are going to make Groupon look antiquated? One app I’ve come to love is the Yelp Mobile Special Offers Tab, which launches right from the main “Nearby” page. Not sure what to eat? How about the place that throws in your beer for free?

Another similar service is Foursquare’s check-in offers, but when I compare it to Yelp, it seems kind of lame. Call me hopelessly utilitarian, but I just can’t get into the “game” aspect of Foursquare, and I don’t think my liver can handle what it takes to become the Mayor of my local watering-hole (the Mayor gets a free beer).

I do think the trend of digital discounting is going to stick around for a while to come, but I think we’re going to see an economic split that’s going to leave Groupon in the cold. The site I just invented in my mind called HalfPriceYachts.com (and others like it) will squeeze the luxury-as-novelty market from above, the many imitators Groupon has already spawned will dilute it’s reach in the mid-priced market, and services like Yelp and Foursquare are going to come up from the bottom. I, for one, am thrilled about all the data this is going to produce for marketers hoping to turn closed-loop analytics into a reality. I also think this is a great way for local businesses to compete with big chains. But, all this discounting is bound to suck much of the glamour (if there was any left) from retail. Luckily, I’ll be too tipsy to notice thanks to all the free beer.

Is Google Latitude “Creepy”?

Nearly two years ago I downloaded the Loopt app for my old iPhone 3G, which enabled me to GPS tag my location and broadcast it via the Loopt app to other Loopt users or onto my Facebook page as a static map. There was just one problem–by the time anybody saw where I was, I was already somewhere else. Loopt could only use my GPS signal or broadcast my location when the program was running in the foreground, and the old iPhone only allowed you to use one program at a time. The new iPhone 4, however, allows apps to run in the background.

I decided to try my experiment again and downloaded the new Google Latitude app for iPhone. Since turning it on, I am now broadcasting my location (or at least the location of my phone) 24/7, to whoever cares enough about where I am to check in on me, and has been given permission by me to do so.

My first instinct was to link up with friends so I can crash their evenings out at the bars. However, the universal response I got from my friends in San Francisco when I suggested linking up with Google Latitude was, “that’s creepy dude.” I thought next about who else might want to be aware of my location at all times? I considered, then passed on signing up my girlfriend, mostly because I didn’t want her to think I didn’t trust her or wanted to monitor her movements (see how this gets sticky fast?).

I settled on my Mom. Though I’m a grown man, my Mom always likes me to call when I land after flying just to let her know I’m safe. I humor her, but over the years I’ve weaned her off the calls to texts, then Facebook updates, and more recently Facebook Places posts. SFO, check. It seemed logical that my mother would be enthusiastic about this technology, too. I explained over the phone what it was and how great it was that she can now aid in the rescue effort should I disappear on a camping trip in the mountains by giving the police my last known location. Her response: “that’s a little, um, weird.”

In the end, one friend who lives in New York and is also a media researcher signed up with me. Aside from the fact that we now can send each other creepy texts, Google Latitude has yet to change my life in any meaningful way.

I wonder if I’m the only person not visiting places I shouldn’t and am unusually unguarded about my privacy, or if I’m just way ahead of the coming curve of adoption. On the other hand, it could just be that people don’t want me crashing their nights out. I can’t say I blame them.

Where you at?

Push ads on iPhone?

I’ve been lax about posting since becoming relatively employed once again, but wanted to feature this odd first. Apparently opting in to push notifications from an iPhone app means opting in to ads too. I got this one twice; once while playing the game, and a second time independent of anything. It just showed up. Interesting… Curious about whether this is a sweetheart deal with EA Games or something Apple is willing to let anyone do.

On the Nature of Advertising Technology

I’m back in San Francisco after a whirl-wind two weeks through New York City and a notable stopover at the Ad:tech conference. As I go through the various brochures and business cards I collected, thinking back on the panel discussions and presentations I sat in on, there’s a consistent theme that keeps popping up. That theme is the competition among tech-focused marketers who are creating networks designed to reduce friction in the system (the various types of networks and ad exchanges that deliver cheaper impressions faster), and the people-focused marketers that are working to increase effectiveness by adding friction back into the system (the social networkers that want to return to a one-to-one utopia). In my humble opinion, both are totally nuts.

An ad delivery system that is completely frictionless doesn’t work. For an ad to work, it has to insert itself in the consciousness of the consumer somehow–otherwise known as friction. All these tech guys that are hell-bent on creating a frictionless system do so with the underlying bias that advertising is evil, and needs to be gotten rid of. I can kind of empathize. However, the model they base their projections on are based on current effectiveness benchmarks that are only possible to achieve in high-friction system. Using that data to project results in a totally frictionless ad-exchange market makes as much sense as basing your mortgage repayment model on data that says jobless deadbeats will repay loans at the same rate as wealthy people. We all know how that ended.

On the flip side of the coin, the social networkers don’t understand the concept of scale. The only way it makes sense to have a one-to-one sales relationship is if the ratio of the total universe of possible buyers to sales people is ~ 200:1 or less, and the price tag of a handfull of sales can make the organization profitable.

There have to be nested, symbiotic, automated layers of marketer-consumer contact that maintain a positive tension between buyer and seller that is always appropriate to the buyer’s point on their path to purchase.  I’m kind of seeing this from some of the automated marketing shops, but nobody out there is trying to sell me an end-to-end solution that makes sense. Even Google tends to err on the side of the frictionless engineers as they’re rolling out their new display network. Where’s the vendor out there that’s selling a solution that combines the lubrication of software with the friction of meat-ware? Can’t we all just get along? Engineers and social media folk, go hold hands and take each other to lunch and tell each other how great the other is. You’ll be better off for it.

Urban Dictionary


The human element in a technological system. The hardware is the system, software runs on the system, the meatware is the user of the system.

The hardware and software are both fine, the problem must be with the meatware.

update from ad:tech

Taking place at Javits center in New York right this very minute is ad:tech 2010–where tech guys try to market things and marketers try to understand what the tech guys (and occasionally girls) are talking about. So far the show seems to be heavy in three areas–mobile, media networks, and a variety of customer acquisition schemers. I say schemers because the 80/20 rule is definitely in effect in the exhibitors hall as it applies to those faking vs. making it.

Of the 20% of companies here that are making it, I’ve already seen a few really innovative ideas and products.

In the mobile space, TeleNav stood out to me as doing something unique and utilitarian. TeleNav produces GPS turn-by-turn voice navigation software that comes preloaded on a lot of smartphones, but can be downloaded to smartphones without it. They recently did a study to see what businesses people searched for when picking a destination, and found that drivers are 2x more likely to search for trusted brands like McDonalds when in an unfamiliar place. Just as Times Square tourists wind up at the Olive Garden because the brand is familiar and they don’t know enough to walk to the great restaurants two blocks west, drivers that are out of their comfort zone don’t know enough not to go to McDonalds. TelNav is selling sponsored listings alongside relevant searches, which gives local advertisers a unique opportunity. Advertisers can now leverage a search for McDonalds within the GPS interface into a meal at a local restaurant. Obviously, this applies to all kinds of retail opportunities.

Time to hit up some more talks and mingle. I’ll be posting a wrap-up of any other good ideas I hear at the end of the show.