Why RunKeeper built a health tracking app on the back of big data

Big data and exercise may not have much in common at an individual or personal level. Take the health-tracking information of nearly 30 million people, however, and you’ve got a powerful product. That’s exactly what RunKeeper has done over the past few years and it’s just getting started: The company is laser focused on finding more ways to help people lead an active life.

“Building an app around a single use case may sound small, but it plays out over time for us to see patterns at scale and to build better products,” Jason Jacobs, founder and CEO of RunKeeper, said at the Gigaom Structure Data 2014 event on Thursday. “We can help people self-manage between doctor visits to live better lives not just once a year at a checkup, but each day. And the data is a powerful tool to inform doctors how to give better care.”

Of course, there’s a plethora of new wearables that can help track exercise and movement, so has RunKeeper “missed out” by not creating a device of its own? Jacobs doesn’t think so at all.

“Yes, the hardware is proliferating. We have stacks of it, but we don’t think that scales.¬†We view ourselves as portfolio managers; we need to understand which devices will be mass market devices and support them with software,” he said. “We have no plans or aspirations to make hardware. Instead, we want to be the software gathering the data and we’d rather solve [fewer] problems better.”

The approach makes sense when you think about the value: Which will have a better return, the one-time sale of a device or the long-tail data gathered from millions of users? Besides, devices alone won’t motivate people to live a healthier lifestyle. Software and captured data, along with social components, can be a heavy motivator to run that extra mile or walk ten minutes longer during the day.

And when it comes to the data, it’s not RunKeeper that owns it. “Users are in control of their data,” noted Jacobs. RunKeeper has an export function. Tracked information can also be linked to other third-party apps, such as those used to manage food intake or sleep patterns. Jacobs said, “We want people to lead an active life,” so it’s not about owning the data, although the data can be used to improve RunKeeper by tweaking or adding features and functions.

What better feedback could a software company ask for than the actual usage data of its app?

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Photo by Jakub Mosur