This Is How Personalisation Could Really Work

I do everything possible to protect my online privacy partly because I’m not overly-keen on algorithms guessing the sort of person I am, based on my wildly divergent tastes and behaviour. I like being unpredictable.

There is one invasion of my privacy, however, that I’m increasingly convinced can immeasurably improve my life – and create a wealth of opportunities for media and health organisations in the process.

The £3.8billion valuation of Fitbit at its public flotation sparked endless headlines about the digital health revolution and how wristbands that monitor sleep and exercise patterns will be as ubiquitous as mobile phones. There are now more than 100,000 health apps, something that’s doubled in the last three years.

And then of course there is the new generation of mobile heart monitors disguised as patches, apps that can enable a diabetic’s smartphone to measure blood-glucose levels, even digital technologies that can check you’ve taken the right medication.

But amid all this admittedly beneficial paraphernalia, say some, we’re handing away our most precious secrets. Governments will know how ill we are, employers will access our health records to supplement CVs, insurers will refuse our applications because we’ve got a sore Achilles tendon.

So what?

Can there be a better use of digital technology than allowing or encouraging me to live longer? After all, the rise in chronic conditions is expected to cost the NHS at least £5 billion a year by 2018, so maybe a little tech know-how will help ease that burden.

And if the price of all that is telling people what my medical condition is then, well, what do you want to know? Isn’t this the first real evidence that digitised knowledge really can improve one’s life, beyond the joy of watching an elephant slide around in a paddling pool?

If information truly is valuable then the minute details of my health are possibly the most valuable cache of information I possess. Though their real value may be dependent on the sharing of that information so that it compels me to do something about my health. Little wonder that, in Europe alone, the digital health market designed to act upon this big data is expected to earn profits totalling more than £5 billion – that magic figure again – before the end of the decade.

In the same way that sharing my financial details with an accountant, financial adviser and fund manager helps me make the most of what I materially possess, so sharing my health details with trusted partners is, I hope, going to help me live a longer and fuller life.

I understand the insistence on data protection so that I can’t be exploited or manipulated but the privacy-fascists are ignoring the fact that the era of web-fuelled big data has brought us closer to a desire that humanity has harboured for millennia. How to live longer. With less paperwork and fewer hospital visits.

In fact health should trump sex and gambling as one of the internet’s great triumphs. And it could be the foundation for a new era of digital personalisation, because it has a constancy that is almost unique.

Here’s what I mean. I have high cholesterol, my son was born with a sight problem, my family has a history of Alzheimer’s and heart disease, a cousin has had frequent brushes with carpal tunnel syndrome, my father-in-law is diabetic, my nephew is profoundly deaf, my exercise routine is rubbish and frequently leaves me with tight hamstrings.

These issues will not change, they are there mostly for life and I – we – are going to need as much help as possible to cope with them. Why would I want all of that information to remain a secret? I want to live longer, I want my extended family to have as fulfilling lives as possible and there are people and organisations out there that can assist in that.

The way I see it, the internet is a perfect tool for enriching our lives in a health-related manner because – and this is crucial – it doesn’t have to guess what we want or need. It actually knows it.

Already, three quarters of the population habitually uses the web for health information but the results are infuriatingly random. Everything is random. Amazon guesses that I like certain music, LinkedIn guesses that I’ll be interested in a new thought-bubble, LastMinute guesses that I like Tuscany because I went there last year.

The trouble is, my tastes and interests change. My health concerns, as listed above, will never change. I will always have them, my interest in them will never cease.

The more those ‘afflictions’ are known about, the more knowledge, advice and solutions will be sent to me directly. Every day, I could be sent tailor-made advice – intricately tailor-made – that might add years to my life.

The less privacy I attach to my health, the greater my chances of living longer. And the more health-positive messages I receive, perhaps the greater chance of me becoming a healthier person and thus less of a liability to insurers.

Personalisation is the internet’s greatest ambition. Health, it seems to me, could be that aim’s most successful application.


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