Your smartphone is watching you -- to learn how your behavior might be affecting your health.
OK, maybe it's not at this very moment... but it could, thanks to a new app created by a Boston-based health IT startup company called Ginger.io.
The app allows your smartphone to track your texts, phone calls and movements, but not in a creepy stalker kind of way. The idea is to map people's behavior and turn it into useful insights about managing their health. The company co-founders have set out on a big mission: "to change how people living with chronic conditions connect through health information."
Running in the phone's background, the app uses global positioning systems and accelerometers that can track location and movement. It also analyzes call frequency and text messaging habits to make an assessment on how people are doing with their health.
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No need to worry about invasion of privacy: the app only looks at stats and general use patterns, so it doesn't know if you as an individual happen to be traveling to McDonald's or calling your mom. And it certainly doesn't listen in or share what's being said or texted. But Ginger.io does keep track of whether you're staying in one place all the time or neglecting to call or text anyone.
"It's a check-engine light for human health, if you will," says Peter Smith, Account Manager at Ginger.io. "The idea is for psychosocial support to help people go a long way to stay on their treatment regimen."
Ginger.io is a spinoff company of the innovation incubator MIT Media Lab where co-founder Anmol Madan was pursuing his computer science PhD. Madan was collecting 320,000 hours of data from research participants' cell phones as part of his studies, and he figured out the kinds of cell phone use patterns that signal the start of anxiety or the flu. So Madan teamed up with two MIT alumni, including Karan Singh who has an MBA and a deep knowledge of the health care system, to launch Ginger.io's smartphone platform. The company has now expanded to the West Coast, too.
They've been building up their program for the past couple years, and a highlight came in November 2011 when Ginger.io won the first-ever Sanofi U.S. Data Design Diabetes Innovation Challenge (modeled after our own Diabetes Design and Innovation contests that Amy started in 2008). With $100,000 from Sanofi and a little extra support plus recruiting some PWDs (people with diabetes) for a pilot study, Ginger.io has been gaining recognition and steam in developing this new health-tracking platform.
Diabetes wasn't a focus of the program originally, but after looking at clinical literature they discovered a correlation between mood and diabetes management, Singh said (we know!), so they decided the app was a good fit with our disease.
By analyzing general patterns that are not invasive, Ginger.io is simply gathering a general sense of people's behavior, he says. For example, if someone who's depressed has a flare up, they are likely to isolate themselves socially and the app would be able to sense this by noting that they are texting and calling less.
Right now, the company is looking for people with type 2 diabetes who live in the U.S. between the ages of 18-65 who own an Android or iPhone and speak fluent English to participate in a pilot study. Those chosen to be included will only need to install the Ginger.io app on their phones, and then take a brief three to five question survey every once in a while about their health and mood. In exchange, they'll get feedback from the program — alerts, insights, and observations about their own health. (Click here to sign up)
Down the road, users will also be able set up the software to alert family members or caregivers about behavioral red flags.
With social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare connecting us these days, we wondered if Ginger.io had any plan to tap into these channels, beyond just text messages. Account Manager Smith said the company is "exploring additional social sensors" that could be incorporated long-term.
Privacy is always a concern, though, and that's why the app doesn't look too closely at calls or texts.
"Technology could record things like (tweets and updates), but it's too invasive from a privacy concern," he said. "There may be a few folks willing to allow this data to be tracked but the vast majority would not."
Some of you may be familiar with the "quantified self" movement, an initiative to use all of these new technologies that gather health data to understand ourselves better as human beings. Ginger.io is at the forefront of this, and I've discovered that gathering data beyond just glucose numbers really can be useful, since there's the potential to learn a lot about your own habits.
I've personally been using the app for a week or so, and so far I'm finding it to be an interesting resource. Every day, it asks me about my mood and offers a little "trivia" about how my health data looks. For example, it tells me that since the start of the year, I've "texted more than 10 times the length of the Declaration of Independence." And last week, I was busier than usual, texting 1.1 times more than typical, and traveling .5 times more than the week before.
See, fun and informative all at the same time! Like the rest of the DOC, we're fascinated to see where the Ginger.io diabetes pilot study leads.