Essential ephemera: The sad, over-too-quickly life of a wearable datum

Craig-Joseph-1A few months ago, I wrote about “homeless data.” I posited that as we continue to generate information about ourselves, we’ll quickly fill up electronic health records (EHRs) with petabytes of data, but precious little knowledge. Some obvious sources of this voluminous information are genomic data that are newly available from your friendly corner laboratory as well as the easily-accessible medical record data from across the street or even the globe. However, another well from which we can derive data is found nearby. In fact, you might be wearing it!

Of course, that new source of data to which I refer is a wearable. This might be a ring, a watch, or even a piece of clothing. Wearables are constantly doing what they do: measuring stuff (this may not be the official explanation of what wearables “do,” but since this is my blog post, I get to take certain liberties). A wearable may measure your blood glucose level, heart rate, or how much you are sweating. It may record how many steps you have taken or where those steps happened. You may think you know what information your wearables are generating because you examine the data points in an app or some other device. If you believe that the information you see is all that is being generated, I may have a bridge to sell you in New York City.

An Apple Watch collects millions of data points a day. Every day. Millions. But you won’t find 99.999% of them on an iPhone app or any website because virtually all of those data go nowhere. The information points are generated, analyzed by the wearable to create useful information (some might call this knowledge), and then quickly discarded. Yet these millions of individual pieces of information can be a treasure trove for scientists and entrepreneurs who are looking to answer different questions or solve other problems.

At Nordic, we recently worked with a client who was interested in taking some of the data from a wearable and using that information to help patients who had tremors. To assess the specific movement disorder and judge if it was improving or worsening, the researcher needed some of the gyroscopic data contained deep in the proverbial bowels of the wearable device. We were able to do some cool under-the-hood manipulation to get the data points, move them to a nearby phone, and transfer them to a cloud analytics solution to be crunched into helpful knowledge. Voila! Bits of data that typically never see the light of day were transformed into useful knowledge that can solve problems and improve lives.

The devices we carry, wear, and use every day produce ephemeral information that is just waiting for the right person, institution, or company to find a good use for it. These data points by and large do not lead very long lives. They are not stored for very long, if they are even stored at all. In the blink of an eye, they are analyzed, summarized, used to tell the device what to do next, and then replaced with the next set of readings. This process can be repeated tens or hundreds of times a second. There is no reason to keep these data points, unless…

...we have a use for them. Is there some magic in the accelerometer readings that, when combined with output from infrared LEDs, can identify early Parkinson’s disease or the onset of a seizure? Can a child’s shirt that has tech to assess sweat output somehow recognize early cystic fibrosis? Will a startup take smartphone data intended to orient the screen in the correct direction and use that information to judge the user’s emotional state? The opportunities seem endless.

While I don’t pretend to know how all of these ephemeral data will be used, I do know that we have just started to contemplate what can be done with this information. I imagine that many companies and breakthroughs will begin with a small group of people asking, “I wonder if…” Most of the time, the answer will be no, but when there really is a “there” there, it will be amazing.

Topics: EHR, featured

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