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The Italian job: A story of data and love

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One of the most classic stereotypes about Italian males is the idea that we are “mummy’s boys”, and honestly, as an Italian, I love it. Sadly, there is a point in life when roles change and you start taking care of your mother – from making sure she is taking care of her health to partaking in all the routine check-ups that are required when you are aging. Last week, I was talking with her about her blood analysis results. Despite the Mediterranean diet and the good body mass index, her cholesterol level was still too high.

During a video-call, I asked “hey mum, how much physical activity are you doing?”. “Well darling, honestly, I’m not exercising too much. I’m always busy at work and I always forget to stay active”.

How does technology help us with health?

I decided then and there that I needed to fix this and as a data scientist – passionate about framing and solving problems by leveraging the power of data – I took to the challenge.I had to create a system of feedback and data tracking to help her stick to a physical activity plan that would improve her health and lower her cholesterol. I decided to give her a smartwatch and connect it to an email account specifically created for this task. My mother was initially sceptical but decided to give it a try.

How to get motivated to exercise

The first major benefit was that it created awareness and mental availability of the problem.

As she began to use the smartwatch, she became incentivised to reach a minimum level of activity each day. Moreover, when she spent too much time sitting down an alert was triggered and reminded her to move for a short walk. Connecting her data to the email account completed the system loop and at the end of each week, we could review the data. I, the typical “mummy’s boy”, could talk with her about her progress and we could ensure she was taking proactive steps to reinforce the healthy behaviours.

But before the big reveal, before discovering if this intervention was a success, let’s sidestep and look at the history of this type of health intervention.

History of health technology

Using technology and tracking these kinds of activities is nothing new, indeed our society started using wearable computers around the ‘70s. It was only in 2007 that Wired magazine editors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly used the term ‘quantified self’ to describe “a collaboration of users and tool makers who share an interest in self-knowledge through self-tracking”. In 2010, Gary Wolf gave a very interesting Ted Talk describing this new social e-cultural phenomenon of self-tracking with technology. It is interesting to say that self-tracking is not the only way to define this phenomenon; other common terms are: auto-analytics, body hacking, self-quantifying and personal informatics.

Personally, as a data scientist, I have great expectations from self-tracking as a system to help improve physical and mental health and fortunately, I am not alone. I recently read how Dr. Keith McNulty, global director at TalentScience and analytics at McKinsey, applied self-tracking to significantly reduce his personal diabetes risk.

According to several papers published in Nature over the last decades, research and academics have made incredible progress and established that wearable devices can improve our health. Crucially, smartwatches are particularly good at improving detection of certain heart diseases like atrial fibrillation by picking up warning signs early through digital health sensors. The new challenges ahead will be to improve sensor accuracy and to design more broad clinical trials to unlock the full potential of this holistic system for our health, and for the people we love.

Impact of technology on health

My mother’s cholesterol levels are now decreasing – her doctor is very pleased with her new exercise regime and the effect it is having. Most importantly, my mother feels better and healthier. Technology and data working together as a system has improved the quality of her life.

As for me, my primary goal, as the Italian “mummy’s boy”, is to bring her to London along with a dish of freshly baked lasagna (which won’t help my cholesterol much).

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