Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Connected Homes Will One Day Affect Our Health

Image from Samsung Tomorrow. Creative Commons.
You arrive home after a brutal day at work. Your heart rate is elevated, and your heart rate variability is low. The watch or bracelet on your wrist senses these things. When you approach the front door, the app in your smart phone unlocks the door, sure that it's you because your heart signature, coming from your smart wrist band, is they key. You cross the threshold and the lights go on, but then dim when they learn that you're a little stressed out. The smart thermostat gets the signal too and adjusts the temperature to a soothing 69 degrees. After you put down your bag and head into the kitchen, where the lights also go on and adjust their brightness automatically to your health and mood, a recommendation flashes on the smart refrigerator's screen: "Have a glass of water first, then a glass of wine," it reads. Then it reminds you of the produce, meat, and dairy that are due to expire within the next three days, prompting you to plan a meal around the food you need to use first.

As you may have figured out from the links above, we're getting closer and closer to this reality. The pieces are nearly there. Now we just have to get them to talk to one another better. (Bill Gates' home, where guests apparently where pin-like sensors that cause each room to adjust to their temperature and lighting preferences, may be one of the most sophisticated and well-documented smart homes.)

Just to back up and summarize: The connected home movement is about embedding more technology into everyday things in our environment to make them not only smarter, but smarter in relation to one another, too.

The other day I had a conversation with a couple who were really into making their home a smart home. They already had the Nest thermostat. They were looking into a sophisticated security system. We talked a little about Amazon Echo and whether that constitutes a component of a smart home ("baby steps" is my answer). One of the smart home enthusiasts said he was looking forward to a day when he could just talk out loud and tell the Nest what temperature he wanted, or get the blinds to open or close.

"No, no, no!" I said. "You shouldn't have to talk at all! It should be passive and automatic!"

Neither should we have a dashboard screen on the wall that we use as a control center. No, no, no.

It's funny to me that people often get hung up on the concept of giving commands to a robot or virtual personal assistant, whether it's Siri in Apple, or Samantha in the movie Her. The reality is people don't want to talk out loud to non-humans (except maybe cats and dogs...). There is a time and a place for that, such as in the car, but by and large, wouldn't it be better to have a truly smart system that learned your preferences based on the physiological triggers your body emits? Suddenly then, you can't be the irrational actor in your own life, opening all the windows in your apartment in the dead of winter simply because you're frustrated or angry. The environment should learn from you what you like, or what is best for your wellbeing, and automatically create an ideal scenario.

The real future of the connected home movement will be to have passive commands, and ones that take our health and wellbeing into consideration.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

10,000 Steps a Day: Where Did That Number Originate?

Image by Giovanni. Creative Commons. 
Ten thousand steps a day.

If you've used a modern activity tracker from companies like Fitbit or Jawbone, you probably noticed that the default goal is 10,000 steps per day. I've been curious about the history of this recommended number because I test and write about fitness trackers as part of my job.

Why 10K?
While I haven't pinpointed the source exactly, an abstract of a paper published in the journal Sports Medicine in 2004 points to popularity of the number in Japan since the mid-1970s.

Pedometers in the U.S. at that time probably also promoted 10,000 steps as the goal. But it wasn't until the mid 1990s when a non-profit organization called Shape Up America! suggested making 10,000 steps a benchmark in the U.S. That's the same time the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report on the nation's health and our lack of activity.

Since then, it seems as if more and more studies have tried to quantify a ballpark figure for the minimum amount of activity a person needs to get in a day to maintain general health and wellness. I wonder how much the public is now primed toward 10,000 steps.

How Many Steps Make a Mile?
Another popular estimate or benchmark that you'll find is the number of steps an average person takes in a mile: 2,000. In other words, the recommended minimum activity translates to walking five miles cumulatively in a day. I've used a click counter to see whether the estimate is correct. I walked on a treadmill for one mile at a natural pace a little more than 3 mph (I've done this experiment more than a dozen times). I register one click once for every other step so that at the end of the mile, I double the number to see how many total steps it takes me to walk one mile. I learned that I take between 1,930 and 2,100 steps, which closely lines up to the average.

Note that all the recommendations that cite 10,000 steps aren't saying you must walk five miles, but rather take a minimum of 10,000 steps in the course of the day. That means you can count all the puttering you do around the kitchen, walking from your desk at work to the bathroom, and so forth. In other words, the message isn't to try and reach some far-flung goal like going for a five-mile jog or walk each day, which would be very difficult for unfit people, but rather to be up and on your feet more frequently and for longer stretches of time. The idea is that all that little activity adds up.

What Should We Really Be Measuring?
I'd love to see other variations on this same number, such as the percent of time in a day spent sitting or standing still, versus being up and moving. Would it be 80 percent to 20 percent?

Or what would it be if we thought about the total number of minutes a day we should be moving? I imagine 10,000 steps came about in part because it is an easy number to remember, but also because it came of age in the era of pedometers when steps is the metric that was measurable.

What I like about modern "pedometers" or fitness trackers is that they collect more data and allow you to become more intimate with your personal readings. I think a better way to find a goal is to look at your own activity on your worst day of the week and set a goal to beat that number consistently, based on other information you know about yourself. For example, if your data say your least active day saw only 3,000 steps, but your average day has you at 8,000 steps, a good goal might be to first his 8,000 consistently, and then eventually exceed it by 15 percent.

Really smart activity trackers either adjust this goal for you automatically or provide some guidance to help you do it, but the important thing is for the user to start to become aware of how much she or he walks.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Apps for the Poor

Over the summer, I decided to write a long-form feature article about a topic that really mattered to me. One of the topics I bring up all the time is that poor people, and what it means to be poor, is so misunderstood if you've never been through it.

I talk about this all the time. I'll often bring up the show Everybody Hates Chris as an excellent example of a show that did explore what it's like to be poor in an honest, complex, and funny way.

I wanted to write something about being poor and the complexity of being poor. And because my full-time job is to write about technology, I needed a tech hook. I found one when I discovered a non-profit organization giving out five fellowships to people to develop mobile apps for the poor. Bingo.

Ciara Byrne was one of the developers. She made a mobile app for domestic cleaners. You know, cleaning ladies. They're poor, but they run their own businesses, and when she talked to them, she learned that they really need help communicating with their clients. So she made an app. She talked to them. She spent time beta-testing with them to figure out if the thing she made was solving the actual problems they had.

The key, it seemed, was to figure out what sub-groups of people within the poor had specific needs. Another that I found was children living in Mexico born with a cleft lip or palette. Because their mothers are poor, they don't always have a sonogram that shows the cleft before they're born, which is what happens in rich countries. The parents don't always know why it's important to get cleft palate repair surgery. But children who don't have the surgery at an early age basically can't strengthen the right muscles to speak properly (they face other social issues and speech, too). A group that funds cleft-repair surgeries in developing countries came up with an Android app that they can give to families post-surgery to help coach them through different kinds of therapies, seeing as the patients often live very far from the hospitals and support staff.

These were all fascinating stories to me.

I spent weeks interviewing the fellows and the heads of the organization. I hunted down other apps and developers, too. My goal was to find apps that were helping poor people solve actual problems they face in their daily lives, rather than apps that do little more than try to give poor people advice on how to not be poor anymore.

It was a little depressing to work on the article, though, not because the topic was a downer but because I got very little support from my team at work. Other projects with dollar signs behind them came up, and no one explicitly stopped me from working on my Apps for the Poor article, but the higher-ups all made it clear that we definitely had other priorities.

In the end, I wrote it, fact-checked it, and even largely edited it without any help from my editors (I had a fellow writer read it and give me feedback, and that was the extent of the editing). I pushed it through. One editor had a final read on it, and she changed the headline because, "Apps for the Poor sounds offensive."


She also said to send this story through the news editors next time. The whole point, however, of not "sending it through news" was because I worked really long and hard on this piece and cared about it and wanted it to be good. The news team's objective is to get articles published fast. Without getting into too much detail about how my organization operates, let me just say that going through the news team was absolutely not something I was willing to do in this case.

I thought about her title the whole day before the article was published. At 11:00 p.m., I wrote her an email saying I disagreed and I very much stood by the title. How about softening it to "Apps for the Poor: They're Not What You Think," I suggested. Fine, she said.

It finally ran, and the subjects of the article were all very pleased with it. None of them thought the headline was offensive, but they, after all, work closely with poor people. They know them and understand them. They know what their actual problems are.

The article was picked up to be reprinted in the monthly magazine edition of PC Magazine (it's a digital/iPad magazine, not a print magazine, at least in the U.S.), and the blurb teasing my story went like this:
"Lower-income people can benefit from apps, but too often developers don't keep their most urgent needs in mind. A recent fellowship in New York helped app developers determine what's most important for people at every income level, and the software that resulted is already changing lives."

It's not about "lower-income people" or "people at every income." It's a story about poor people, and how no one (okay, very few) people are listening to what their actual problems are and what kind of tools and solutions they want to ease their problems.

I'm still exceedingly proud of the piece and am happy I wrote it, but it was quite a learning experience in ways I didn't expect.