December 2, 2013
When you clicked on the link to read this article, your computer, tablet or phone sent a request that traveled hundreds or perhaps thousands of miles at the speed of light. After leaving your house or office, likely via a fiber optic cable, it traversed the continent, crossing through a handful of Internet exchanges along the way. Ultimately, it reached a data center in Chicago where Smithsonian.com stores its data—the “cloud,” of course, isn’t really a cloud—and triggered a packet of data to be sent back in the opposite direction, bringing the text, images, and links in this article to your screen.
Soon, though, the packers of data your computer requests when you browse the web might make a slight detour as part of its journey to a data center and back to your house. Much like how, when you call for tech support, you’re likely to speak to someone in India, we might be on the verge of an age where we routinely outsource much of our data to the frigid island of Iceland.
“There is no reason why Iceland shouldn’t have a major market share in international data hosting in the next ten years,” Isaac Kato, a CFO at Verne Global—the company that’s currently expanding their year-old data center near the capital of Reykjavik—told me last month when the company brought me to Iceland to see their new facilities. As he courts customers, his company’s selling point is simple: Iceland is a perfect mix of fire (as in geothermal energy) water (hydropower) and ice (cold air, to cool racks of servers without AC). In the data storage industry where the biggest cost is electricity, Verne Global claims they can provide enough cheap, 100 percent carbon-neutral power to make the trip more than worthwhile.
Their idea isn’t entirely new—Facebook is building data centers in northern Sweden, near the Arctic Circle, to similarly take advantage of natural air conditioning, and the company Advania operates a smaller data center in Iceland as well. But Verne could be a harbinger of a much bigger trend: Hosting the data of international companies that have nothing to do with Iceland, thousands of miles away from their operation.
What make all this possible are the undersea fiber optic cable lines that connect Iceland to Europe and North America. Because fiber optic data travels at the speed of light, a trip from New York to Iceland and back takes about 80 milliseconds. But plenty of countries are wired with fiber optics. Given the immense power consumption of data centers—Google’s suite of data centers, spread all around the world use enough electricity to power a city of 750,000 people—Iceland’s uniquely attractive attribute is the fact that it is literally overflowing with carbon-free energy.
Iceland built its first hydroelectric plant in 1937 as part of an effort to supply many of Reykjavik’s houses with electricity for the first time. One of the first places I visited upon arriving to the country was Irafross hydropower plant on the River Sog, built a few miles downstream from the first plant in 1953 and now one of 13 hydropower stations operated by the state-owned power company Landsvirkjun. Given that Iceland is trying to brand itself as a waypoint for the digital information that keeps the world connected, it felt ironic that the 45-minute drive to the power plant from Reykjavik was strikingly sparse and remote. Craggy, windswept lava flows run underneath high-voltage transmission lines, and grazing sheep dot the landscape.
After entering the building, we donned hardhats and descended a four-story concrete spiral staircase, walking past whirling turbines and through a moss-covered access tunnel. “Be careful to watch your head,” said Rikardur Rikadsson, a genial company representative, shouting over the gushing of nearly 40,000 gallons of water per second, discharged back into the river after spinning a series of turbines that can produce up to 48 megawatts of electricity at any given time. In the scheme power plants as a whole, this output, which can power somewhere on the order of 15,000 homes, is a fairly small number; a typical coal plant can produce 600 megawatts of electricity.
In the U.S. and most other countries, renewable electricity is a boutique industry. In Iceland, it’s the only game in town. Currently, 26 percent of the country’s electricity comes from geothermal energy and 74 percent comes from hydropower. When you plug your television into a wall outlet in Iceland, the juice coming out is entirely carbon-neutral.
But for a sparsely populated country of about 320,000 (a bit larger than the population of Corpus Christi, Texas), this is actually too much power. The nation produces almost twice as much electricity per capita as any other country and is actively trying to figure out what to do with it. Sources of renewable energy, unfortunately, can’t be shipped in barges like coal. Plants can’t send waterfalls or geothermal heat across an ocean. Plans to build an electricity transmission line to Europe are occasionally discussed, but it’s estimated that producers would lose 7 percent of the electricity during transmission and the necessary infrastructure would be excessively expensive.
“For years, the power companies here thought, ‘How do we get the power from Iceland to Europe?’” says Jeff Monroe, Verne’s CEO. “We believe we’ve found the most efficient way to do that. We’re shipping power out of Iceland and around the world in the form of bits and bytes over fiber optic cables.”
* * *
“For all the breathless talk of the supreme placelessness of our new digital age, when you pull back the curtain, the networks of the Internet are as fixed in real, physical places as any railroad or telephone system ever was,” writes Andrew Blum in his book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. Verne’s new data center, built on a decommissioned NATO base outside of Reykjavik, is one of these real, physical places.
The company was founded in 2007 by Isaac Kato and others who hoped to capitalize on the world’s rapidly growing data streams and Iceland’s unique energy situation. But shortly after they announced their plans, they were abruptly halted. “I came on board in September 2008—a week or so before the crash,” says Monroe, referring to the crippling financial crisis that caused the country’s GDP to fall by 5.5 percent in a six-month span. “No matter what you were doing in Iceland, you were impacted.” By the end of 2009, though, when the undersea fiber optic links to Europe and North America were completed, the situation had improved, and Verne decided to press forward. In 2011, the company purchased an existing warehouse from NATO, repurposed it with their own infrastructure and opened for business, though it is still expanding and filling the space with more servers and machines.
Given how open, in many ways, our new digital age seems to be, there’s something surprising about the back-end places where our bits originate; they’re intensely secretive. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside the area of the data center with the actual server racks, and getting our tour group into the facility necessitated an elaborate security procedure that involved fingerprint-activated locks.
Once inside the aluminium-walled warehouse, we strolled through a frigid industrial hall filled with enormous machines. This was what one of the center’s “cold aisles,” filled with the devices that ensure the servers stay powered, cooled to the right temperature and kept at the correct humidity at all times. “I want to remind everyone that this is an active facility, so hands in pockets at all times,” Tate Cantrell, Verne’s technology officer and our tour guide, told us. At the end of the building, a freezing draft blew in through a two story-tall wall made up mostly of air filters. “The wind outside? That’s our free air-cooling,” he said. On average, half of a conventional data center’s energy goes toward cooling down the servers as they heat up, the same way your laptop’s fan starts whirring when you run a bunch of programs at once. Instead, at this facility, they simply piped in the wind and funneled it towards the backs of the machines.
Even so, when we entered the locked aisle that gave access to the front of the servers, the temperature felt like it immediately jumped up 20 degrees or so. Crunching data generates a ton of heat. Cantrell provided cryptic, jargon-filled descriptions of the hardware, but the sci-fi-styled server cage, I was told, looked more or less like all data centers: racks upon racks of servers strung with snaking cables, silently running lines of code and served bytes of data to users far, far away.
It’s impossible to say exactly what their purpose was at that very moment—a few companies (BMW and RMS, a catastrophic risk modeling company) have publicly announced their use of the Verne facility, but most are reluctant to for security reasons. But the basic idea is this: Of a company’s digital activities, there are some that need to be close to a geographical center—financial trading software, for instance, needs to be able to capitalize on the split-second response times that putting infrastructure in Manhattan allows—but for the vast majority, an extra 80 milliseconds of lag time won’t make a big difference. Companies that want to take advantage of this can either rent space in Verne’s server racks for their own hardware or buy computing capability as they need it.
Given all the benefits Verne claims to offer, why aren’t thousands of companies moving their data to Iceland right now? One reason is the perception of Iceland as a volatile place to do business. Apart from the financial crisis—from which the country finally seems to be recovering—there are natural disasters. The island itself is a volcano, formed by the continual spreading of the Mid-Atlantic ridge, and a 2010 eruption spewed ash that shut down air travel throughout Europe for an entire week. Associated earthquake activity, though rare, is also a concern. Due to the use of natural air cooling, some worry that volcanic ash could infiltrate the center and interrupt operations, while earthquakes could damage infrastructure.
But Verne officials say these concerns are overblown. “No matter where you put a data center, there’s risk,” said Monroe, the CEO. “Northern New Jersey, for instance—there are a ton of data centers there, and we saw during Sandy how risky that was.” Gawker.com, for instance, was knocked offline during the storm due to power failures at its New York-area facility. To minimize their risk, Verne put its facility on the former NATO base, which sits on secure bedrock, far away from the island’s seismic activity and upwind from the volcanic activity, and have measures in place to shut down the outdoor air intake in the event of an eruption.
But for some customers, there may be one problem that persists no matter how many precautions Verne takes: latency. 80 milliseconds—the length of time it takes a piece of data to fly from New York to Iceland and back, under ideal conditions—might not sound like much, but for some companies, it might be a deal breaker. In the past, Google has found that merely increasing the time a search takes from 400 to 900 milliseconds causes a 20 per cent drop in traffic. Given the unavoidable delays already present (computing time, the time it takes for data to cross the continental U.S., etc.), tacking on an extra 80 milliseconds could be undesirable. And while Google might be able to build multiple data centers—those in remote, inexpensive places with abundant energy, like Iceland, and those near users specifically built for time-sensitive tasks—smaller companies might not have this luxury, and are forced to put all their eggs in one basket, says James Hamilton, an engineer with Amazon Web Services.
For larger companies with flexibility, it may be that getting used to the idea of outsourcing data is the biggest hurdle to overcome—the same way outsourcing call centers was a strange idea, until it became normal. “It’s hard to go be the first person to move your data there,” says Rich Miller, the editor-in-chief of Data Center Knowledge. “No one wants to take a risk and have it backfire.”
But it seems that Verne might indeed be at the forefront of a trend. In addition to leasing space in Verne’s facility, BMW has discussed building their own data center nearby, in anticipation of all the data that’ll be used by their increasingly connected cars, equipped with their new ConnectedDrive technology, which provides drivers with cloud-based voice control and real-time traffic information over a wireless connection.
Given the negative publicity companies like Facebook and Apple have received from Greenpeace campaigns protesting their heavy dependence on coal power, the eventual possibility of carbon emission regulations and the resulting increases in energy costs, and the fact that Icelandic utilities offer 20-year fixed-price contracts on carbon-neutral energy for industrial users like power centers, figuring out a way to power data with clean energy in the long term makes a lot of sense. Right now, the data running through your computer or tablet probably didn’t come from Iceland, but wait a year, five years, or a decade. Eventually, there’s a good chance that the cloud will have relocated to a frigid island nation across the Atlantic.
October 11, 2013
It’s hard to imagine that technology could be a friend to Obamacare, given the dismal performance of its official website last week. But it turns out that the high-speed crunching of a huge amount of information—aka Big Data—could ensure that one of the principle tenets of health care reform, known as “accountable care,” can become more than a catchy phrase in a policy paper.
U.S. hospitals have begun shifting their way of doing business. It’s long been the case that the payments hospitals received from Medicare largely were based on the tests their doctors ordered and the procedures they performed. So, strangely enough, the sicker a hospital’s patients were, the more money it tended to receive. But the Affordable Care Act is designed to change that, instead providing incentives that reward positive results. And, that seems to be prompting hospitals to move from focusing solely on treating sick people to helping patients take better care of themselves in the outside world. They want their ex-patients to stay ex-patients.
It’s crunch time
Case in point is Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Not long ago it hired a 30-year-old named Jeff Hammerbacher to try to work wonders with the hospital’s new supercomputer. His previous job was as Facebook’s first data scientist, so you know he knows how much wisdom can be gleaned from mountains of information—if you have computers powerful and fast enough to make sense of it.
So far, the hospital has developed a computer model that crunches all the data it has on past patients—from why they were admitted to how many times they’ve been there to everything that happened during their stays—and from that, it’s able to predict which ones are most likely to return. But instead of just waiting for those patients to come back, Mount Sinai, like more and more hospitals, is turning proactive, reaching out to those frequent patients with follow-up calls to make sure they get to their doctor appointments or avoid the bad habits that end up sending them to the hospital. In one pilot program, Mount Sinai was able to cut re-admissions in half. If you don’t think that hospitals can put a serious dent in health care costs by slashing the number of repeat patients, keep in mind that nationwide, 1 percent of patients accounted for nearly 22 percent of health spending in 2009.
Methodist Health System in Dallas is going down a parallel track. It’s been analyzing patient data from 14,000 patients and 6,000 employees to identify people who are most likely to need expensive health care in the future, and it’s reaching out to help them take preventative measures before they develop costly ailments.
Here are a few other recent findings that have come from hospitals crunching Big Data:
- A health care provider in Southern California using data on the behavior of staff doctors found that one physician was using a certain antibiotic much more often than the rest of the staff—potentially increasing the risk of drug-resistant bacteria.
- At Memorial Care Health System in California, hospital management has begun tracking how doctors there perform on such things as immunizations, mammograms and blood glucose control in diabetic patients. That and other doctor data helped reduce the average patient stay from 4.2 days in 2011 to four days in 2012.
- Use of full-time nurses, rather than contract or temporary ones, coincided with higher patient satisfaction scores, according to Baylor Health Care System.
- Researchers in Ontario are working with IBM on a system to detect subtle changes in the condition of premature babies that could tip off the onset of infection 24 hours before symptoms appear.
- In another case, data analysis was able to determine which doctors were costing the most money by ordering procedures and other treatments. Hospital administrators reviewed the results with the costly doctors and suggested ways they could cut back on duplicate tests and unnecessary procedures.
Ultimately, hospitals hope to get to the point where, based on analysis of all the data of every patient who’s ever walked through their doors, they’ll have a very good idea of the risk facing each new patient who arrives.
To your health
Here’s a smattering of other recent research on hospital treatment:
- With luck, you’ll forget about the ICU: Researchers at Vanderbilt University found that 75 percent of people who spend time in a hospital’s intensive care unit suffer some level of cognitive decline. In some cases, according to the study, they can experience Alzheimer’s-like symptoms for a year or longer after leaving the hospital.
- Still need a reason to stay out of hospitals?: According to a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, treatment of infections people develop in a hospital adds $9.8 billion to America’s health care costs every year. The Centers for Disease Control has estimated that one out of every 20 patients gets an infection while in the hospital. About a third of the cost comes from infections following surgery—they add an average of $20,785 to a patient’s medical bills.
- Here’s another: A study published in the recent issue of the Journal of Patient Safety estimates that as many as 210,000 to 440,000 patients each year who go to the hospital suffer some type of preventable harm that ultimately contributes to their death. If that’s the case, it would make medical errors the third-leading cause of death in America, behind heart disease and cancer.
- Must be the food: After crunching results from 4,655 hospitals, a health care economist from Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia found that the best hospitals, in terms of medical results, generally don’t receive the highest satisfaction rankings from patients. Instead, the top hospitals, which often are bigger and busier, tend to get only lukewarm ratings from people who spend time in them.
- But they found no link between moon cycles and back hair: Believe it or not, researchers at Rhode Island Hospital contend that their analysis showed that cardiac surgery, specifically aortic dissection, is less likely to result in death if performed in the waning of a full moon. They also said that patients who had the surgery during a full moon tended to stay in the hospital for shorter lengths of time.
Video bonus: Here’s another way Big Data is being used to predict human behavior, in this case, what we’re likely to do when we enter a store.
Video bonus bonus: And, in advance of Halloween, a little macabre hospital humor.
More from Smithsonian.com
May 8, 2013
Cell phones are so many things now–computer, map, clock, calculator, camera, shopping device, concierge, and occasionally, a phone. But more than anything, that little device that never leaves your person is one amazingly prolific data engine.
Which is why last October, Verizon Wireless, the largest U.S, carrier with almost 100 million customers, launched a new division called Precision Market Insights. And why, at about the same time, Madrid-based Telefonica, one of the world’s largest mobile network providers, opened its own new business unit, Telefonica Dynamic Insights.
The point of these ventures is to mine, reconstitute and sell the enormous amount of data that phone companies gather about our behavior. Every time we make a mobile call or send a text message–which pings a cell tower–that info is recorded. So, with enough computer power, a company can draw pretty accurate conclusions about how and when people move through a city or a region. Or they can tell where people have come from to attend an event. As part of a recent case study, for example, Verizon was able to say that people with Baltimore area codes outnumbered those with San Francisco area codes by three to one inside the New Orleans Superdome for the Super Bowl in February.
In a world enamored of geolocation, this is digital gold. It’s one thing to know the demographic blend of a community, but to be able to find out how many people pass by a business and where they’re coming from, that adds a whole nother level of precision to target marketing.
Follow the crowd
But this data have value beyond companies zeroing in on potential customers. It’s being used for social science, even medical research. Recently IBM crunched numbers from 5 million phone users in the Ivory Coast in Africa and, by tracking movements of people through which cell towers they connected to, it was able to recommend 65 improvements to bus service in the city of Abidjan.
And computer scientists at the University of Birmingham in England have used cell phone data to fine tune analysis of how epidemics spread. Again, it’s about analyzing how people move around. Heretofore, much of what scientists knew about the spread of contagious diseases was based largely on guesswork. But now, thanks to so many pings from so many phones, there’s no need to guess.
It’s important to point out that no actual identities are connected to cell phone data. It all gets anonymized, meaning there shouldn’t be a way to track the data back to real people.
There shouldn’t be.
Leaving a trail
But a study published in Scientific Reports in March found that even anonymized data may not be so anonymous after all. A team of researchers from Louvain University in Belgium, Harvard and M.I.T. found that by using data from 15 months of phone use by 1.5 million people, together with a similar dataset from Foursquare, they could identify about 95 percent of the cell phones users with just four data points and 50 percent of them with just two data points. A data point is an individual’s approximate whereabouts at the approximate time they’re using their cell phone.
The reason that only four locations were necessary to identify most people is that we tend to move in consistent patterns. Just as everyone has unique fingerprints, everyone has unique daily travels. While someone wouldn’t necessarily be able to match the path of a mobile phone–known as a mobility trace–to a specific person, we make it much easier through geolocated tweets or location “check-ins,” such as when we use Foursquare.
“In the 1930s, it was shown that you need 12 points to uniquely identify and characterize a fingerprint,” the study’s lead author, Yves-Alexandre de Montijoye, told the BBC in a recent interview. “What we did here is the exact same thing, but with mobility traces. The way we move and the behavior is so unique that four points are enough to identify 95 percent of the people.”
“We think this data is more available than people think. When you share information, you look around and you feel like there are lots of people around–in a shopping center or a tourist place–so you feel this isn’t sensitive information.”
In other words, you feel anonymous. But are you really? De Montijoye said the point of his team’s research wasn’t to conjure up visions of Big Brother. He thinks there’s much good that can come from mining cell phone data, for businesses, for city planners, for scientists, for doctors. But he thinks it’s important to recognize that today’s technology makes true privacy very hard to keep.
The title of the study? “Unique in the Crowd.”
Here are other recent developments related to mobile phones and their data:
- Every picture tells your story: Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human Computer Interaction Center say their research of 100 smartphone apps found that about half of them raised privacy concerns. For instance, a photo-sharing app like Instagram provided information that allowed them to easily discover the location of the person who took the photo.
- Cabbies with cameras: In the Mexican city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, taxi drivers have been provided with GPS-enabled cell phones and encouraged to send messages and photographs about accidents or potholes or broken streetlights.
- Follow that cell: Congress has started looking into the matter of how police use cell phone data to track down suspects. The key issue is whether they should be required to get a warrant first.
- Follow that cell II: Police in Italy have started using a data analysis tool called LogAnalysis that makes it especially easy to visualize the relationships among conspiring suspects based on their phone calls. In one particular case involving a series of robberies, the tool showed a flurry of phone activity among the suspects before and after the heists, but dead silence when the crimes were being committed.
Video bonus: If you’re at all paranoid about how much data can be gleaned from how you use your mobile phone, you may not want to watch this TED talk by Malte Spitz.
April 26, 2013
I have good news and bad news for anyone who will be looking for a job in the coming years. The good news is that some time in the future, job interviews may go away. Okay, maybe some companies will still do them for the sake of tradition, but they won’t matter all that much.
Which leads me to the bad news–Big Data is more likely to determine if you get a job. Your dazzling smile, charming personality and awesome resume may count for something, but it’s algorithms and predictive analysis that will probably seal your fate.
Here’s why. Enormously powerful computers are beginning to make sense of the massive amounts of data the world now produces, and that allows almost any kind of behavior to be quantified and correlated with other data. Statistics might show, for instance, that people who live 15 miles from work are more likely to quit their jobs within five years. Or that employees with musical skills are particularly well-suited for jobs requiring them to be multilingual. I’m making those up, but they’re not so far-fetched.
Some human resources departments have already started using companies that mine deep reserves of information to shape their hiring decisions. And they’re discovering that when computers mix and match data, conventional wisdom about what kind of person is good in a job doesn’t always hold true.
Run the numbers
Consider the findings of Evolv, a San Francisco company that’s making a name for itself through its data-driven insights. It contends, for instance, that people who fill out online job applications using a browser that they installed themselves on their PCs, such as Chrome or Firefox, perform their jobs better and change jobs less often. You might speculate that this is because the kind of person who downloads a browser other than the one that came with his or her computer, is more proactive, more resourceful.
But Evolv doesn’t speculate. It simply points out that this is what data from more than 30,000 employees strongly suggests. There’s nothing anecdotal about it; it’s based on info gleaned from ten of thousands of workers. And that’s what gives it weight.
“The heart of science is measurement,” Erik Brynjolfsson, of the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T., pointed out in a recent New York Times article on what’s become known as work-force science. “We’re seeing a revolution in measurement, and it will revolutionize organizational economics and personnel economics.”
Evolv, which largely has focused its research on hourly employees, has spun from data other strands of of H.R. gold, such as:
- People who have been unemployed for a long time are, once they’re hired again, just as capable and stay on their jobs just as long as people who haven’t been out of work.
- A criminal record has long been a thick black mark for someone in the job market, but Evolv says their statistics show that a criminal background has no bearing on how an employee performs or how long they stick with a job. In fact, it has found that ex-criminals actually make better employees in call centers.
- Based on employee surveys, call center workers who are creative stay around. Those who are inquisitive don’t.
- The most reliable call center employees live near the job, have reliable transportation and use one or more social networks, but not more than four.
- Honesty matters. Data shows that people who prove to be honest on personality tests tend to stay on the job 20 to 30 percent longer than those who don’t.
And how do they gauge honesty? One technique is to ask people if they know simple keyboard shortcuts, such as control-V, which allows you to paste text. Later they’ll be asked to cut and paste text using only the keyboard to see if they were telling the truth.
It’s getting creepy
Data-driven hiring has its flaws, of course. One is that it could result in unintended discrimination against minority or older employees. Minority workers, for example, tend to travel farther to their jobs. And that could create legal problems for a company that steers clear of long-distance employees because statistics show they don’t stay in jobs as long.
Then there’s the matter of what lengths a company will go to gather data on its workers. Where will it draw the line when it comes to tracking employees’ behavior in the name of accumulating data?
“The data-gathering technology, to be sure, raises questions about the limits of worker surveillance,” Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told The New York Times. “The larger problem here is that all these workplace metrics are being collected when you as a worker are essentially behind a one-way mirror.”
That’s a serious issue, but it’s not likely to slow the trend of replacing a boss’ gut reaction with the perceived wisdom of algorithms.
Case in point: Earlier this year eHarmony, the company that’s made its mark in online matchmaking, announced plans to tweak its algorithms and get into the business of hooking up employees and companies.
Big Data is watching
Here are other ways Big Data is having an impact:
- The roads less traveled: Delivery companies like Fedex and UPS are starting to see significant savings by using data analysis to guide drivers to less congested roads to avoid idling in traffic.
- Have phone, will travel: Scientists in Africa are using data gathered from cell phone usage to track the spread of diseases like malaria by seeing where people travel.
- Big C, meet Big D: The American Society of Clinical Oncology has launched a project to create a massive database of electronic records of cancer cases so doctors can apply analytics to determine how to best treat patients.
Video bonus: Still don’t get the whole Big Data thing. Photographer Rick Smolan shares his epiphany about it.
More from Smithsonian.com
January 17, 2013
Utensil history was made last week and I, for one, took pleasure in seeing that we had finally evolved beyond the spork or, as some of you may know it, the foon.
But sadly, the unveiling of the HapiFork at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was not universally greeted with great jubilation, but rather with a fair amount of ridicule.
Produced by a Hong Kong company called HapiLabs, the HapiFork is curious little thing. It looks like a fork and works like a fork, but it vibrates like a cellphone. And why it buzzes is the reason the media largely responded with one big group eyeroll.
See, the HapiFork is a fork with a simple and noble mission–to get you to stop eating like a pig. It buzzes to remind you to slow down.
It tracks not only the number of bites you’ve taken, but also how much time has passed between them and how long it takes you to finish the meal. The slower you eat, the fewer calories you consume. And because all the data can be stored on your smart phone, you can measure how less a chowhound you’ve become.
But some critics were not enamored of the concept, portraying the HapiFork as the essence of nanny technology, another “smart” gadget enforcer of data-driven moderation. How, the thinking goes, did it come to this, where forks are telling us to shut our pieholes?
The measure of a man
But maybe, given the obesity epidemic in the U.S. and Europe, it’s time to start listening to buzzing silverware. In fact, there are those who believe the current boom in mobile apps and devices that track our health and bad habits could play a big role in helping the U.S. get its outrageous health care costs under control.
A major health trend this year, according to a new report from PricewaterhouseCoopers, will be a shift by employers and insurance companies to encourage employees to be a lot more proactive when it comes to taking care of themselves. That’s in part due to incentives in the Affordable Care Act, but also because today’s technology–whether it’s sensors, WiFi or smart phones–has made it so much easier to track every move we make, every breath we take.
We’ll likely see more companies turn to employee wellness programs focusing on prevention and tapping into all that data that our smart phones and other health gadgets are able to gather about us. Already, start-ups such as the Boston-based Healthrageous are being hired by companies to work closely with their employees with chronic conditions, such as diabetes or hypertension or even sleep disorders. Healthrageous provides both a tracking device–say a blood glucose monitor for diabetics–and a customized plan to help employees reach their personal goals, which could be anything from fitting into pants you last wore 10 years ago to being able to play with your grandkids.
PUSH Wellness, in Chicago, also contracts out an employee wellness program, but with a different spin. It actually pays cash incentives to workers who meet goals that raise their “PUSH” score–a number based on a person’s Body Mass Index (BMI), blood pressure, cholesterol and fitness level. With PUSH, it’s not enough for an employee to exercise; they have to show real measurable results or there’s no pay out.
The big health insurance companies are getting in on the act, too. Last month, Aetna unveiled Passage, a fitness app it developed with Microsoft, that allows people to feel like they’re running or biking in some of the world’s great cities–Rome, New York, or Barcelona, for instance.
Also last month, Cigna announced that it has made available, for free, to the first 20,000 people who download them, four apps bundled together as the “Healthy Living App Pack. One is designed to track your workouts, another to get you to relax, another the help you sleep. The fourth, Fooducate, is a food nutrition app designed to make you health savvy when you’re food shopping.
When sensors speak
Here are five other health devices that made a splash at CES last week:
- Would your wrist lie to you?: Another health wristband is coming on the market soon. Called Fitbit Flex, it will be able to track your daily activity–steps taken, calories burned–and also how you’ve slept, plus wake you up with a little buzz in the morning. For motivation, a display of four LED lights shows how far along you are in meeting that day’s goal. And at $100, it will be less expensive than the competitors already out there, Nike Fuel and Jawbone’s Up.
- Keep running or we’ll play “Gangham Style:” Or you can let little earbuds do the monitoring work. Coming out this spring are iRiver On headphones equipped with PerformTek Precision Biometrics technology that measures a range of body metrics, including heart rate, distance traveled, steps taken, respiration rate, speed, metabolic rate, energy expenditure, calories burned and recovery time.
- It was so much easier when pills looked like the Flintstones: For those dealing with a daily dose of multiple meds, there’s the uBox. The little box reminds people when it’s time to take their pills with a combination of beeps, blinking lights and smart phone reminders. And if you’ve already taken your meds, the box remains locked until it’s time for another set–the better to keep forgetful seniors from double dosing. It even lets other family members know if grandpa’s missed a med.
- Giving new meaning to “Let me hear your body talk”: Then there’s Metria, a small patch a person wears on their chest that measures heartbeat, skin hydration, breathing, steps taken and sleep patterns. (It records the duration and quality of sleep based on how much you’ve tossed and turned.) Each patch gathers information for seven days and can send it to a phone or tablet anywhere in the world. Metria’s designed primarily for elderly people who live alone, but the U.S. Air Force reportedly may use it to monitor pilots.
- Will walk for prizes: And bringing us back full circle to obesity is the ibitz PowerKey, a pedometer for kids. It doesn’t just track their activity, but rewards them with games, apps, shows and prizes for staying on the move. And yes, parents can check in on their kids’ progress on their own smart phones.
Video bonus: See why Stephen Colbert thinks the HapiFork is “unAmerican.”
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