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.”