Book Review: Trackers: How Technology is helping us Monitor & Improve our Health, by Richard MacManus

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Available at bookstores nationwide.

”Hello, I’m Gordon and I am a geek”. But although I am a hard-core geek and programmer I have been reluctant to get involved with trackers: hardware or mobile phone apps which measure, and monitor, the body in real time. Indeed, to track my weight, I use a pencil and paper. But I was interested in what is happening, and had many questions.

So this book was an opportunity to get answers to some of the questions about the technology. What sort of measurements could I record? How easy are these things to use? How accurate is the data collected? More importantly, once the data is collected, how should it be interpreted? Is this useful, or just an exercise in narcissism?

Richard MacManus became interested in monitoring his own health when diagnosed as a diabetic. After beginning to closely monitor his own health he has become quite involved with tracking, and has traveled widely visiting lots of people, trying many of the devices that are available.

And there are a lot of possibilities! Trackers range from pedometers to personal genomics: analysis of DNA, and the range is always increasing.

The bulk of the book is a number of case studies, ranging from pedometers to genetics, by way of tracking activity, food, weight, brain activity and internal bacteria (the microbiome). Although the author is based in Wellington, many of the stories are based in the USA, and at least in some cases indicate what we can expect soon, rather than what is here in NZ right now.

The reaction of the medical profession to all this patient-generated information is interesting. The author has found a warm reception from doctors to his own monitoring, and has case studies of doctors who not only recommend, but “prescribe” monitoring to some of their patients. This came as a welcome surprise to me: but still the risks of self-diagnosis are concerning. MacManus makes the point that interpreting the data collected must be done with the aid of informed people. Some of those involved in the industry are not so moderate.

MacManus is careful also to point out the benefits of monitoring one’s health in a social network, for support and motivation. He also describes the increasing importance of ‘gamification’: turning what might easily be a chore into a hobby.

Of course the book is a snapshot of the technologies available at this moment. MacManus is quick to point out that some hardware will be replaced by phone apps, and that hardware might morph into ‘wearables’, being woven into clothing or even implanted into the body.

The author Richard MacManus created the technology blog ReadWrite.com, and is well known for picking what is coming next in technology. Throughout the book, the writer is describing his own experiences and conversations, in a lively and engaging way. He is an enthusiast for the technology, and for taking responsibility for his own health, and makes a persuasive argument that we should take more responsibility too.

So, after reading the book, many of my questions are answered. No, tracking your health data not just an exercise in narcissism. I am still concerned about the interpretation of the data outside of a medical setting, however. Is a weight loss of 0.4 Kg significant? What should I make of a reduction of 3% in blood pressure? But I am now much better informed.

Even though the devices and software will change, the implications of self-tracing will not. This is an easy to read, well paced survey of an important development.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Trackers: How Technology is helping us Monitor & Improve our Health
by Richard MacManus
Published by David Bateman Ltd
ISBN 9781869538804

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