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Gary is now the proud owner of a Fitbit. Read on to find out what he thinks of it and wearable technology in general.

It has been difficult to attend an underwriting conference over the last two or three years without hearing about ‘wearable technology’, ‘personalised health’, ‘wellness programmes’ or similar. Alongside these have been discussions about ‘big data’, ‘predictive modelling’ and ‘predictive analytics’, and the potential uses of alternative data sources in the underwriting process for greater accuracy or efficiency.

A subject that gets a lot of airtime is wearable technology and how this might be used. Keen to understand what all the fuss is about, I bought one.

Now this isn’t going to be a product review, and note that there are many other products available but the wearable I have is a Fitbit HR. You wear it on your wrist and it measures steps taken, heart rate, distance travelled, calories burned, flights of steps climbed and sleep quality. So it’s not the bargain basement version but far from the most sophisticated piece of kit available.

Fitbit the company was set up in 2007 and business is booming. In the second quarter of 2015 more than 4.5 million were sold, up from 3.9 million in the previous quarter The tracker uses an accelerometer to sense movement in a similar way to a Nintendo ‘Wii’.

At the time of writing I have had it a couple of weeks. Or more accurately the one I have now I have had for a couple of weeks – the first one was faulty and didn’t measure my heart rate. It was pretty easy to set up and so was the software on the home Mac. The software displays the activities picked up by the tracker and you have the option to record activities, gym visits, calorie intake and your height and weight on a daily basis. What I have found interesting, given the media exposure that wearables have been getting, is that since I got mine, I have only seen two other people wearing them.

So, first impressions? Well it’s interesting. It really does show how much variation there is in how active I am from day to day. I work from home some days and am in London a couple of days a week. I try to get to the gym two or three days a week and do a spin class (that’s fast, and furious cycling on a static bike) on two of those days. Some of the days when I am at home my step count can be less than 7,000 whereas on a day I get to the gym or am out and about the count can get above 15,000. So far though, I’m not convinced that it is completely accurate or the best possible indicator of activity. The step counter doesn’t pick up everything and what gets recorded while spinning (OK cycling isn’t stepping) is a bit erratic. However, the heart rate monitor does seem to be in line with the heart rate monitors on the exercise bikes and cross trainers at my gym. And a spin class can burn something like 700 calories. So it gives an interesting indication of when you are sedentary, lightly active, fairly active or very active. And the readings certainly tie in with gym visits and other activity.

But using some of this data for underwriting risk assessment? Early feelings are that this is all very interesting but I question the value of the raw data for risk assessment. I think that using this raw data will have its limitations because it is merely a snapshot of an individual at a point in time and so arguably not much value for underwriting. But of course we take snapshots like blood pressure readings which we know vary from time to time and from one observer to the next. What may be more interesting, and so potentially more useful, is the trend data over time and I will report back on that soon.

What does it tell us about the risks for a 50-something underwriter that we couldn’t get from elsewhere or that we needed to know in the first place? After the first couple of weeks the answer definitely isn’t ‘nothing’. But I suspect that it doesn’t tell us quite as much as some would have us believe. However, it is early days and it does give an interesting insight, especially if the user logs information such as height and weight.

I suspect that that mere fact that you have such a device is a reasonable indicator that you are interested in your own health and fitness. I can’t see many couch potatoes buying one (unless of course they are giving it to a friendly gym bunny to ‘record’ their data of course).

Watch this space for updates.

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