Can Big Data From Wearables Help Us Sleep Better?


Wearables continue to be a hugely popular item across different age groups and even continents. They track steps and sleep cycles, but just how valuable is that information? In reality, this data is only partially useful for the wearer. Without big data to decipher what is more or less healthy, those wearables are borderline useless. More importantly, there is a much bigger game at play. Researchers, developers, and startup entrepreneurs are all using that data to see the big picture. It might now matter how much sleep one girl living in New York gets. But if researchers could track how everyone in New York, or everyone in the world, sleeps, that could lead to incredible insights.

Jawbone makes several popular fitness trackers. They’ve sold millions of their “UP” tracker around the globe. While their users were busy tracking sleep cycles for their own purposes, Jawbone was compiling massive datasets. The study of sleep is by no means a new practice. But now, rather than having some hundred or hundreds of test subjects, companies have access to data from millions of individuals in their natural settings. By tracking millions of UP wearers in North America, Europe, Australia, Japan and China, Jawbone stumbled upon some weird facts, with large amounts of data to back it up.

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Their data found that women, on average, sleep some 20 minutes longer than men. The company has some thoughts on why, including a biological need for women to get more sleep due to the birthing process; the reason might also lie in men being more prone to sleep complications. In reality, Jawbone, as a wearables company, is not likely to crack the complex biological functions that could be at play by themselves—but they’re procuring all the data needed for researchers to move the discussion forward. By discovering which countries’ citizens get the most sleep, they can find links and insight into other areas of life, including major problems like obesity. They’ve even stumbled into other highly specific data stories, like how going to sleep at a later time leads to higher heart rates in the morning, or how folks that commute tend to get less sleep.

Luckily, Jawbone isn’t alone in the field. FitBit, with 9.5 million active users, has gathered more data in one year than early sleep scientists would have seen in their entire careers. Fullpower technologies makes the monitoring software used in several of today’s most popular wearable devices. CEO Philippe Kahn told Fortune that today’s experiments are huge, worldwide endeavors that the field has never seen before. “We have 250 million nights of sleep in our database, and we’re using all the latest technologies to make sense of it.” Data from wearables still suffers from problems with inaccurate sensors and calculations, but it is slowly getting more accurate. Plus, by tracking users in their home environment, the data becomes much more valuable and realistic.

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