Use RunKeeper? Now you can donate your exercise data to science

Runners

Activity trackers are indicators of their users’ fitness levels, but they could also flag aspects of city design that promote better health.

New York University researchers are inviting fitness enthusiasts to share their digital fitness logs with them, in a bid to reveal how exercise habits among city dwellers vary with seasons, and from weekdays to weekends, and if structures like public parks or running routes help establish a routine.

“Basically we are looking at how environment relates to how you exercise over time,” said Rumi Chunara, associate professor at NYU, who leads the study that began accepting participants today.

Chunara’s study will allow people who use the Boston-based app RunKeeper to share their data in an anonymized fashion with Chunara and her colleagues: inputting details like where they run, bike, or walk, and how far, for how long, and how that behavior changes from week to week. She hopes to get about 1,000 participants from a scattering of cities in the United States.

This will give the team a high-resolution picture of which public spaces correlate with what kind of exercise, as well as other health markers tracked by the app.

“It’s not just helpful from a public health perspective — you could [also] imagine doing dynamic urban planning,” Chunara said, pinpointing neighborhoods that could do with a bit of encouragement to exercise.

The tech making this data transfer possible is called the Open Humans Project, a website and database funded by the Knight Foundation where people can store various health data collected by assorted trackers, then choose to contribute some or all of it to researchers like Chunara looking to populate their studies. Among its member networks is the Harvard Personal Genome project.

Open Humans launched in March this year, and it’s one of the several groups that are connecting researchers who need data with the wealth of personal information people are logging daily in their smartphones.

Apple’s ResearchKit, which allows doctors to easily build iOS apps and invite and enroll far-flung patients in clinical trials, is another.

The Open Humans approach emphasizes the rights of the patient, however. They’re looking to give people who provide data to researchers a shot at benefitting directly from the results. Which is why when researchers dip their cup into the pool of voluntarily shared data housed in the Open Humans database, they must first agree to share the results of their study with the people who made it possible in the first place.

Chunara hope to get 1,000 participants by the end of the summer, and plans to share the results of her study with anyone who contributes. “In one sense when you contribute your data, you’re helping the community,” she said.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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