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Big health is driving big data

If big data seems to be something remote, think again: it’s becoming a big part of your health picture, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

It’s no surprise that the health industry has taken so strongly to fitness tracking devices: every day, these gadgets stream information on a level that previously was only possible from a medical checkup – which takes place only once a year, if at all.

When Microsoft entered the crowded fitness tracker market with its Band device 18 months ago, the big news wasn’t in the device itself. The real story was the launch of Microsoft Health, a wellness tracking platform powered by cloud computing. It wasn’t a first, but the entry of the software giant into an area where the early running  seemed to be made  by Google Fit and Apple Health was deeply significant.

For one thing, it meant that health tracking was now a priority for a company focused both on leveraging the cloud and making sense of Big Data – the ability to turn massive volumes of information into business intelligence.

It also meant that, regardless of the success of the Band, the platform would evolve to take advantage of the intensifying stream of health data being pumped out by millions of other wearable devices. For now, that market is dominated by Fitbit, Apple Watch, Garmin, Samsung Gear and Jawbone UP. However, a strong push from Chinese manufacturers like Lenovo, Xiaomi and Huawei is likely to change the early shape of the industry.

Even in South Africa, fitness bands or activity trackers are beginning to graduate from fad to trend to mainstream.  The local market is led by Fitbit, which at one stage threatened to become the generic name for activity trackers globally. In an interview last year, US president Barack Obama said he was planning to get a Fitbit – but appeared to be talking about the category rather than the brand. He suggested he might consider an Apple Watch.

In the USA, Fitbit sells two-thirds of all activity trackers. For wearables in general, including smart watches, its share drops below half, but it still leads the market. In South Africa, it helped that it was endorsed by Discovery Health, which gave members of the Vitality wellness programme bonus points for using the device. Discovery did the same for brands like Garmin, Nike, Fitbug, Jawbone, Polar and Adidas.

In the near future, it is likely that medical insurance companies will plug into the devices as well as the platforms. Since Microsoft Health also acts as a hub for data from other monitoring platforms, like MapMyFitness, MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper, there is little reason it can’t become a catch-all health data aggregator.

Combine this kind of functionality with information collected by health practitioners – including nutritional assessments and medical check-ups – and it becomes possible to make precise connections between behaviour and health. The significance of the role of big data here is that recommendations can then be made across large populations as well as for specific individuals.

Right now, many individuals who are committed to healthy living depend heavily  on health magazines that offer glib and generalised advice as silver bullets, when in fact this represents a scattergun approach. In the near future, big health data will mean that every individual will potentially have access to highly personalised diagnostics and advice.

There will be many pitfalls along this path, such as “wrist spam”, when too much data is offered, and false alerts, when people are for example wrongly warned of impending heart attacks. Privacy will become an increasing challenge, and laws will probably be passed to dictate what information health and life insurance companies may collect, how it must be stored, and how they can use that information to weight insurance premiums.

The biggest threat of all, however, is likely to be security: in the same way many hackers now make a living from stealing financial data, many will in future try to harvest health and activity data for sale to the highest bidders.

The stakes are high, with massive benefits for the main stakeholders: individuals managing their own health destinies; cloud computing companies hosting the data; practitioners providing scientifically tailored care; researchers getting the most accurate insights yet from trials; and insurance companies requiring interventions when anomalies appear. For each of these, it’s the small insights lurking in the big data that will make all the difference.

There will be many not-so-obvious stakeholders too, in particular the companies that manufacture wearable monitoring devices. Knowing what makes the biggest difference in big data will aslo depend increasingly on these small increments in data that each of us is streaming into our devices, and from there into the world.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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Two-thirds of adults ready for cars that drive themselves

The latest Looking Further with Ford Trends Report reveals that behaviour is changing across key areas of our lives

Self-driving cars are a hot topic today, but if you had to choose, would you rather your children ride in an autonomous vehicle or drive with a stranger? You may be surprised to learn that 67 per cent of adults globally would opt for the self-driving car.

That insight is one of many revealed in the 2019 Looking Further with Ford Trend Report, released last week. The report takes a deep look into the drivers of behavioural change, specifically uncovering the dynamic relationships consumers have with the shifting landscape of technology.

Change is not always easy, particularly when it is driven by forces beyond our control. In a global survey of 14 countries, Ford’s research revealed that 87 per cent of adults believe technology is the biggest driver of change. And while 79 per cent of adults maintain that technology is a force for good, there are large segments of the population that have significant concerns. Some are afraid of artificial intelligence (AI). Others fear the impact of technology on our emotional wellbeing.

“Individually and collectively, these behavioural changes can take us from feeling helpless to feeling empowered, and unleash a world of wonder, hope and progress,” says Kuda Takura, smart mobility specialist at Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa. “At Ford we are deeply focused on human-centric design and are committed to finding mobility solutions that help improve the lives of consumers and their communities. In the context of change, we have to protect what we consider most valuable – having a trusted relationship with our customers. So, we are always deliberate and thoughtful about how we navigate change.”

Key insights from Ford’s 7th annual Trends Report:

Almost half of people around the world believe that fear drives change
Seven in 10 say that they are energised by change
87 per cent agree that technology is the biggest driver of today’s change
Eight in 10 citizens believe that technology is a force for good
45 per cent of adults globally report that they envy people who can disconnect from their devices
Seven out of 10 consumers agree that we should have a mandatory time-out from our devices

Click here to read more about the seven trends for 2019.

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Encounters festival to screen year’s hottest documentaries

The 21st Encounters South African International Documentary Festival has secured the rights to screen 2019’s most acclaimed documentaries.

Fresh from the world’s leading festivals, the documentaries put viewers in places as diverse as the front row of high-fashion’s runways to eavesdropping on an international racist conspiracy with South African ties, from a tribute to Pan-Africanism via Fela Kuti to Afrika Bambaataa’s search for his roots in Kwa-Zulu Natal.

The opening night film, coming just weeks after its World Premiere in Competition at Hot Docs, Toronto’s holy grail of documentary film festivals, will be “Buddha In Africa”. Made by South African director Nicole Schafer, it receives its’ joint South African premiere at Encounters and the 40th Durban International Film Festival.

This delicately observed documentary is about a Malawian teenager in a Chinese Buddhist orphanage in Africa, who finds himself torn between his African roots and Chinese upbringing. The film focuses on Enock, a young teenager caught between his traditional culture, his dreams of becoming a martial arts hero like Jet Li and the strict discipline of Confucianism. Set against the backdrop of China’s growing influence on the African continent this essential film poses complex questions about race, imperialism, faith and culture and offers a subtle exploration of the impact of soft cultural power on the identity and interior life of a young boy and his community.

Director Schafer says: “It’s also about Africa’s relations with other foreign nations, including the former colonisers. It’s this idea that the key to the future of the continent’s development is always held by outsiders, and that in order to succeed, we have to adapt to foreign value systems and policies. I think Enock’s story challenges this idea in very refreshing ways.”

Click here to read about what’s to show at this year’s Encounters festival.

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