The value of data in the wearable revolution

Posted by farezv on January 3, 2015

I was watching some of Chamath Palihapitiya’s interviews where he talks about some companies he’s invested in, specifically in the health care/management realm and it got me thinking about the value of data generated by things like smartwatches & other wearables.

When you think about companies like Quora, Meetup.com and Airbnb, you realize that they heavily make use your social data to better serve you. Quora lets you login with FB/twitter, Airbnb uses Facebook in it’s reputation building system and Meetup shows which friends, or which of their friends are attending meetups you’re browsing.

These services would be hard to build if Airbnb had to start from scratch to build a social reputation system, and if Meetup couldn’t use your own (actively created) social connections to push you to go to meetups. The social graph built by products like Facebook and Twitter are pretty valuable already and these graphs are still in their infancy when you think about the number of people that still don’t have access to internet.

The incredible thing about wearables is that they are just starting to go mainstream with the Apple and Android smart watches and it wouldn’t be unlikely to have a couple billion people using wearable technology in a decade or so. Consider how cell phone usage grew! Think about how valuable GPS data from cell phones would’ve been a decade ago, and how many problems could’ve been easily solved. Technology seems to grow exponentially, especially if you consider how quickly man went from discovering flight, to being on the moon (< 70 years) and how quickly we went from giant mainframes to pocket supercomputers.

The crazy thing about software today is how cheap it is to build it. There are tonnes of free and open source tools out there to get started. You can build products that affect millions on a laptop less than $1000 and pay small monthly fees for renting computing power (that scales easily). So it should make you wonder where the real value is. I mean, if software is cheap (and most enterprises can take advantage of this), what makes technology so valuable? Why is software engineering such a valuable skill? Why are people paying billions to acquire trivial seeming photo-sharing & SMS apps?

The real value comes from data, it seems. The cost of building mobile and web apps, and scaling them to millions of users is pennies on the dollar when you think about all the valuable data that software produces. Facebook’s done it with social data, but I think health-related data is far more useful.

Think about how easy it would be to have large health-related data readily available for scientific research. Grad students and researchers would have to spend less time collecting data and could gain a deeper understanding of their research topic. This would dramatically reduce the amount of time and resources needed to produce (and bring to market) all kinds of healthcare products.

We could see a wave of new consumer devices and software products being made on top of healthcare data-graphs. People could be more informed about their health on a day-to-day basis. Healthcare could switch from a curing to preventative approach where people don’t go to the doctor after the symtomps appear. Paul Graham talks about this in his PyCon 2012 talk where he presents his Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas.

I’m pretty sure that to people 50 or 100 years in the future, it will seem barbaric that people in our era waited till they had symptoms to be diagnosed with conditions like heart disease and cancer.

That is exactly what having large scale personal health data would allow. People could actively monitor their health & prevent themselves from getting sick. This data, if used correctly, could have massively beneficial effects on a population’s long term health.

The knowledge sharing from the last generation of devices, has made people’s lives incredibly efficient. Let’s hope this generation’s products improve our health.