Virgin Pulse fitness tracker is a case study in big data and privacy

virgin pulse

This week’s White House/MIT Big Data and Privacy Conference was pretty abstract. At least, it was for those of us who don’t geek out over homomorphic encryption.

I’ll give you an example: One consensus appeared to be that most people will be willing to contribute personal information to large data sets if they can retain ownership of their info, see a tangible incentive, and place limits on how much others are able to see.

OK. But what does that look like in real life?

It looks like Virgin Pulse of Framingham.

Virgin Pulse (yes, it’s part of that Virgin family) makes a personal fitness tracking system that other companies — including Coca-Cola, BP, and Zappos — offer to employees as part of their corporate benefits packages. The system includes a wearable device, called the Max, which measures stuff like steps taken and calories burned, and an online portal where users can record other healthy habits, such as lifting weights and eating nutritious meals.

As employees collect fitness points for hitting the gym and the salad bar, their companies reward them with prizes, which often include rebates on health insurance premiums.

There’s the incentive, but now we could be veering into Big Brother territory. Is my employer tracking every step I take — or don’t take? What about my insurance company?

“We tested this early on,” Virgin Pulse chief executive Chris Boyce told me. “We tested it with an insurer, actually. And when the insurer got the data, more than half their employees wouldn’t sign up.”

Understandable. So Virgin Pulse tweaked its model. Now, an employer cannot see how many calories a worker burns or how often she cheats on her diet. All the company knows is how many points she collects over the course of a month. Since there are many ways to amass points, the total doesn’t reveal much detail about what she’s been up to.

Insurers see even less — nothing, in fact. Employers use point totals to determine how big workers’ insurance rebates should be, but insurers have no access to fitness data.

This is a concrete example of what some presenters at the big data conference described in math terms: An equation that gives you the answer you need without disclosing the inputs.

Of course, there has to be some trustworthy central repository for all the raw data. In our fitness example, that’s Virgin Pulse. The company has mass quantities of data about exercise, diet and sleep habits, and uses all that info to improve its service. But Virgin Pulse does not claim ownership of the data and cannot give it or sell it to third parties without users’ permission.

The balance between data collection and privacy seems to satisfy customers.

“We addressed this issue head-on,” said Andy Pfeifer, senior director of total rewards at Smith & Nephew, an Andover-based medical device company that introduced the Virgin Pulse system in the fall. “Our employees felt comfortable, once they understood that this was a tool to help them be healthy, and the company wasn’t spying on them.”

Cal Borchers is a business reporter for the Boston Globe. Reach him at callum.borchers@globe.com.
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