It’s approaching Christmas 2015 and desperate for a present for my wife, I took inspiration from Bernard Marr’s book Big Data, which I’d recently finished. Almost in passing, he mentioned wearing a band that gathered his personal movement data, and was contributing to the growth in “big data”. I knew of Fitbit, Garmin and other brands, but not the Jawbone UP he used.
I investigated the available options and decided on the UP3, the Rolls-Royce of UP bands incorporating movement sensing, sleep tracking, and passive heart rate among other things. Coupled with a smartphone app, it was possible to track food, other activities, and stage “duels” with other UP users. It seemed an ideal present for my health-conscious wife, and to be a supportive husband, I bought one for myself too.
Although I’d been aware of fitness bands for some time, it turns out there was quite a market. I’m sure many of you have something to track steps, movement, heart-rate or GPS. But outside of those of you with a professional interest in the data, it also seems the health-conscious, tech-savvy are buying them too, as a recent survey shows:
Christmas day, my wife opens her present first. Not being too comfortable with technology, she looks at me strangely, before I open mine and declare us “UP buddies”. After a little convincing she was right on board with the idea; we both felt the bands would transform our lives.
Christmas week for us is generally quiet; we both take time off work and visit friends and family. With the inevitable over-eating Christmas brings, we also took the opportunity for plenty of long dog walks. I was amazed at how easy it was to achieve the recommended total steps per day. “Why doesn’t everyone manage 10,000 steps? It’s easy”, I told my wife.
I loved sleep tracking, since generally I don’t sleep well, I revelled in the amount of REM sleep, light and deep sleep I achieved.
From January we tracked steps, swimming, tai-chi, sleep, food, water, everything we could. But we started to notice the drawbacks of tracking so much detail: the time it takes to enter things that aren’t captured automatically. Nevertheless, we persisted with our new lifestyle.
I had a rude awakening when I returned to work. Whereas 10,000 steps had been easily achieved at home, when in the office my daily steps dropped dramatically to between 2,000 and 3,000. Each day became a fight to achieve the golden 10k target.
As time moved on battery capacity became a problem; constantly charging a band that lasted maybe 3 days so as not to lose a crucial piece of data that could make all the difference to our lives.
My wife lasted until Easter. She didn’t like wearing it for sleep, there were technical issues so it didn’t track movements properly, support replaced the band, and whilst she continued to use the app for calorie management, the band was lost to the depths of a bedside draw.
I persisted, determined to make it work for me. I discarded all data entry, and relied on automatic capture of steps, sleep, and manually entered the occasional swim.
Over the course of the year I did become disillusioned with tracking this data. The UP’s app tried to be supportive, suggesting I drink more (water), set targets, duel against other wearers, but I realised it wasn’t for me. There were simply not enough new insights to keep my attention.
On December 26, 2016 I removed the band and it joined its twin in the bedside draw.
Whilst I wanted my health and fitness to improve, a major reason for wearing the band was to capture the data and analyse it.
The export available from the UP website covered all the main categories of recorded data, but was limited to a single value per day. As someone whose job is data analysis, I want every data point possible at the lowest level of granularity, not a daily summary.
The eighty or so columns did provide a daily overview of my life, health and activity. I built the dashboard in a few hours, creating charts for areas that interested me. Next time I’ll explain how I used Qlik Sense to load my UP data and create charts. If you have an UP band yourself, feel free to use that data, or follow the steps using my data.
Finally we come to the analysis of my year with a fitness tracker. Clearly I’m a little overweight (who isn’t), and don’t take enough exercise (who does), but overall I feel it’s a healthy picture. I’m particularly pleased with my sleep patterns since I had considered myself to be a poor sleeper.
The highlight of the year is definitely the quarter million step total in August. A figure due in large part to a holiday in north Wales, and the single day I dragged my family up a mountain (although technically not, but it felt like it) and achieved over 23,000 steps.
The UP app constantly reminded me that a good resting heart rate fell within a range of 60 to 100 bpm. I’m very proud to say my average is 55, which apparently makes me a “well-trained athlete”, or at least a winner in the genetic lottery.
So did the band improve my life and health? Other than providing data, I’m not sure it delivered the life-changing experience I’d hoped for.
Since writing this post, a BBC Technology article (Has wearable tech had its day?) was published reiterating many of my points: battery life, lack of insight, etc. The conclusion is that whilst sales of existing wearables is declining, once trackers have their own connectivity, ie. are no longer tethered to a smartphone, then the market may well return.