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Data scientist tests 21 sensors and still can’t find a good one

4:59 pm by | 2 Comments

At the Privacy Identity Innovation conference in Seattle last week, Liz Gannes of All Things D met Rachel Kalmar of Misfit Wearables. Kalmar is a data scientist and a one-person focus group for 21 personal trackers. Gannes asked Kalmar to identify each tracker. The list included multiple Shines, a Fitbit Flex, Jawbone up, two Basis bands, a Lark Life, a Pebble, a Wii Fit Pulse, and a Body Media band and covered both wrists, a big chunk of her belt, her ankle and her upper arm. She said it takes “USB spaghetti” to keep them all charged and synced.

Kalmar said she sees these devices as early cell phone cameras: they were awful but they got better over time. Here are her three most surprising comments from the interview.

“Accuracy is the wrong question to ask.”
Gannes wanted Kalmar to name the most accurate tracker. Kalmar said a quantified selfer looking for accuracy should buy a triathalon GPS watch.
“The goal of all these is not accuracy but to get people to be more active,” she said. “The right question is: ‘What do you care about? Having the most sensors?'”
If that is the most important criteria, she recommended the Basis Band because it has 5 sensors including heart rate, galvanic skin response and a battery life of three days.


“We have a lot of barriers to an open data ecosystem.”
Kalmar said that she was hoping to learn about her behavior, but what she got instead was a lesson about the infrastructure of healthcare. She said she has gotten a better idea of the barriers to getting this data as well as the obstacles to interpreting it.

“I want my devices to interact with the rest of my world.”
Kalmar said that the Internet of things should provide motivation as well as data.
“I want my Internet router to get glacially slow if I haven’t moved enough, but if I can only get step counts at the end of each day by downloading a CSV file, it’s not going to help me very much,” she said.

What kind of devices could do this?

Kalmar dreams of a digital mood ring, where a lack of her measured experience of sunlight leads to a boost in ambient indoor lighting, in order to avoid Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Or, she’d love for her trackers to text a designated friend when she’s behind some stated goal, so the friend can help inspire her to move more. Or perhaps when a tracker detected she’d been sitting at her desk for too long, her broadband speed should slow down to encourage her to step away from the computer.

“What motivates me is the people in my environment and the other things I interact with,” Kalmar said.

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Veronica Combs

By Veronica Combs

I was the editor in chief at MedCityNews.com. I started writing and editing in the print world and joined a dotcom right before the 2000 crash. I was at TechRepublic/CNET/BNET for 7 years. Health was more interesting to me than the latest version of Windows, so I left for a startup tracking prescription drug news. A year later, MedTrackAlert was acquired by HealthCentral, so I shifted to audience research. The fun of daily news and interviewing smart people brought me to MedCity News in February 2012.
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Just to clarify, I think many of the devices I use are good. It's the lack of interoperability I bemoan.  As for recommendations, Basis was my pick for most sensors--not overall.  

Veronica Combs
Veronica Combs moderator

@grapealope Thanks for the clarification on Basis. I changed the article to reflect that - meant to write it that way originally.