Your Fitbit: Friend or Foe?

Wearable pieces of tech are motivational and fun, but there are issues of accuracy and privacy that we’d rather ignore.

Penguin March Badge

Writing is ultimately a desk job. Unless we install a treadmill in front of a stand-up desk, the only real movement we do on the job is slouching off downstairs to make tea or fetch a biscuit. Freelancers have an advantage: We can just decide to go for a run halfway through the morning if we feel like it. While writing full-time in a ‘real’ job these last few months, in an actual office with air-conditioning, it wasn’t so easy to maintain any kind of fitness routine. I walked to the job from the train station and I wandered around the town at lunch time, but did that make up for the general sedentary nature of the work?

Enter the Fitbit: Charge 2

To see what my new work pattern was doing to my body, I bought a Fitbit. A Charge 2 to be exact. And I love it! The app sends you cool motivation ‘badges’ when you’ve achieved something significant, such as walking a certain number of miles. You can track your calorie intake and compare it to how many calories you’ve burnt, so you can see if you need to change your eating or movement habits. It’s a connected GPS tracker, a heart rate monitor, and a watch, and you can set it to send you notifications from your phone, or buzz you hourly to make sure you get up and move. It records any exercise you’ve done, any stairs you’ve climbed, and the number of steps you’ve taken each day. You can use it to record your weight and keep a food diary. It also apparently monitors your sleep patterns. For the first week, it was the best toy I’ve ever had.

Sleep Stage Tracking…Really?

It was the sleep stage monitoring that made me suspicious. I’ve taught Psychology for many years, and I know that sleep studies are usually conducted with an electroencephalogram (EEG). As the Charge 2 is a wrist device which is clearly designed to take your pulse rate rather than monitor the electrical activity in your brain, I couldn’t see how it could possibly be accurate. In fact, it soon registered that I’d taken an afternoon nap while I’d actually been reading a book.

On a Charge 2, the GPS tracking only works when it’s synced to a GPS-enabled mobile device. I once forgot to bring my phone along on a run, and my Fitbit recorded that I had run three miles when I had in fact only covered two miles. I think it gave an estimate of distance covered based on my age and gender. It obviously didn’t register how slow I really am! I can’t assess the accuracy of the built-in GPS Fitbits, such as Surge, as I have no personal experience of them, but why does accuracy matter so much anyway?

Murder and a Lawsuit

Recently, data from a Fitbit pedometer was used as evidence in a murder trial in Connecticut. The data contradicts the timeline of events given by defendant Richard Dabate, who is accused of murdering his wife Connie. If the data from technology wearables is going to be used as court evidence, then the accuracy of that data becomes a very important issue.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit was brought against Fitbit last year, accusing the company of using ‘highly inaccurate’ heart rate monitoring technology in the Surge and Charge HR. However, other studies have found these devices to be ‘highly accurate’. I think that ultimately it’s unreasonable to expect a wrist device to be capable of extreme accuracy when monitoring heart rate. After all, consumer wearables are not designed to be medical equipment. Not yet, anyway.

Who Controls the Data?

And how do I access all my data? Easy. I set up a Fitbit account, so the company holds all of the data I produce and they allow me to view it. In fact, I think my data may have been part of this study:

Of course, I signed away control of my data when I set up the account, as we often do online. But it does raise issues of privacy when a private company holds so much personal, health-related data. It might not alarm us as much as it should because it doesn’t feel like we’ve just agreed to disclose private information about ourselves. It doesn’t feel awkward or intimate or liberating, like sharing a confidence might with a new acquaintance. We haven’t passed on our current heart rate to the guy at the bus stop, or let a stranger know our exact whereabouts at any given time. But at the other end of the data stream, processing it all, there are other humans with complex motivations. And while our data seems relatively safe right now, what happens when the company holding it is sold or dissolved? Fitbit’s privacy policy states that ‘We will never sell your data’, meaning your Personally Identifiable Information (PII) such as names, home addresses and email addresses, unless ‘it is necessary in connection with the sale, merger, bankruptcy, sale of assets or reorganization of our company’.

This allows the possibility of our data being sold or transferred on to third party entities at some point in the future. Fitbit also states that it may ‘share or sell aggregated, de-identified data that does not identify you with partners and the public in a variety of ways, such as by providing research or reports about health and fitness or in services provided under our Premium membership.’ Data sharing can run foul of the law; just ask the Royal Free Hospital about its data deal with Google’s DeepMind.

Cool Stuff Is the Best!

Will this make me take off my tech wearable? No, I love it far too much. And maybe that’s a feature of our current relationship with data and technology. As long as we feel that the exchange is equitable, we don’t mind exchanging private information for cool stuff. Perhaps we will eventually move to a point where we value our own information enough to sell it ourselves. But we’re not there yet.

Adventures in Mindfulness

I think have time-anxiety. That’s not a clinical term, if you’re wondering – I’m pretty sure I’ve just made it up. But it seems an accurate description. I always need to know how long things are going to take, and if I don’t know (or can’t make a good guess), I get anxious that I’m going to run out of time. I can trace this back to three years ago, after I had a big operation. I still had deadlines to meet, but everything took me twice as long as it had previously because I was still recovering. Then I had to return to my day job, which is teaching – a stressful enough occupation where there is never enough time to do anything.

I had a few bouts of insomnia, which I attributed to stress and too much caffeine. Break-time chats revealed that most of us were fuelled by stress and caffeine. One of my teacher friends shared with us that she’d found a means to reduce her stress: a book containing an eight week course on Mindfulness by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. She was hesitant to recommend it because she hadn’t finished the course, but she thought it was working for her. I’d heard of mindfulness, of course. I was aware that mindfulness training was being used to treat depression, with some promising results. And I really did need to find a way to get some sleep, so I bought a copy.

Now, you might think at this point that this post is going to be a book review. Nope. As a writer, I have a lot of experience with procrastination. That build-up of psychological obstacles which we intentionally place between ourselves and the thing we want. Perhaps we’re really just empathising with our protagonists who never really want to deal with their obstacles in the first act.

First of all, I wanted to read the beginning chapters because I was interested in the science and the theory behind it. So far, so good. At the end of those chapters, there’s a chocolate meditation exercise – and this is where I got stuck (or rather, I allowed myself to get stuck). The instructions suggest that you should use a type of chocolate you’ve never tried before or rarely eat.

Shelf of Chocolate
I have tried all of these – even the Hershey bar.

I’ve tried almost every type of chocolate available in a supermarket, so this was not an easy task. Eventually, I found something appropriate (actually, in hindsight I don’t think a Cadbury Jelly Popping Candy bar was appropriate for a mindfulness exercise), but I put off the exercise for a couple of days and by that time someone else had eaten it.

However, by this point, I’d become distracted by adult colouring books, which are also supposed to be good for mindfulness, and seemed less work than the Williams and Penman book.

Coloring Book Page
I couldn’t get this finished by Halloween. It even looks annoyed.

Unfortunately, I never seemed to have the time to finish colouring a whole picture in one go, which I found intensely irritating. That was not the desired outcome.

Winter came. I decided to switch from running to yoga because I hate being out in the cold. Yoga, of course, presents another form of mindfulness. It’s basically breathing and counting. I’ve been doing yoga on and off (mostly off in recent years) since I was sixteen, so it was familiar and I already had a yoga mat.

After a couple of weeks, I was sleeping better and felt less anxious. Success! I found a method that works for me. Or at least, it’s working for me at the moment. Spring is coming soon so I’ll probably switch back to running because I like being outside when it’s not cold. I might even give the mindfulness book another go.

This Week I’m Researching … Nutrition and Shakespeare

I like finding out stuff so I’m always researching something. And I love learning. If there was such a job as a Professional Learner (outside the upper echelons of academia), I would be doing that.

Imagine my glee when I discovered FutureLearn. This is an online education site, globally accessible, with free courses delivered by real universities. Currently, I’m learning about nutrition and Shakespeare  (the two topics are unconnected … so far).

I’m also currently behind schedule in both courses, as I’ve taken on too much – kind of like piling a load of lovely food onto your plate then discovering your eyes are bigger than your stomach (figuratively, of course; I know this is factually incorrect because I have been studying the digestive system).

Hopefully I won’t collapse into a gloopy, deadline saturated mess of  writing, teaching and learning, and can at least survive until December.

2014 – Stuff Happened

I’ve been a bit quiet on the social media front this year as unfortunately, and against my better judgement, I’ve turned out to be a superstitious soul. You see, I was born with a heart defect and this year I finally had to get it fixed. This was also the year that my first feature went into production at exactly the same time as I got admitted to hospital – my birthday, as a matter of fact (only the night shift radiographer clocked the date).

Up until this year, I had two major life ambitions: to have a film I wrote made into a real thing and to avoid surgery. I have now achieved one of my life ambitions – a 50% success rate, you could say. I didn’t want to blog or tweet about my surgery or recovery in case (and I know this to be impossible) it jinxed my progress and something went horribly wrong.

However, it’s been nearly a year since the surgeon cracked open my ribs and did his thing, and I’m more or less fully recovered now, so I thought I’d recount some of my experiences over the next few weeks – maybe someone out there will find it useful.