The Examined Life of Rachel Kalmar: Data Scientist

The Examined Life of Rachel Kalmar: Data Scientist
Rachel Kalmar in a photo taken at the FutureMed conference earlier this year, when she was sporting just eight devices (Shine is on her right wrist). Photo: TJ Rak, Singularity University

Rachel Kalmar will be easy to spot at the Hardware Innovation Workshop next week. She will be the one wearing eleven health monitoring devices: three on each wrist, four on her belt, and one on her upper arm.

That elegant aluminum disc on her right wrist: that’s Shine, the “personal activity tracker” created by Misfit Wearables. Kalmar is the company’s data scientist.

Shine enters the crowded health monitoring field with a design centered around a simple question: Are you moving enough? It measures your activity and syncs with an iPhone app (with Android coming soon).

The 40-person company is based in Daly City, California, but has significant operations in Vietnam.

picture of Shine device
Shine, coming in June from Misfit Wearables.

Earlier this year, Shine completed a spectacularly successful crowdsourcing campaign on Indiegogo, raising $846k, more than eight times its original $100k goal. This was in addition to $7.6 million in VC funding the company raised in April, 2012. Now Misfit Wearables has 10,000 pre-orders to fill for a promised June delivery date. Retail price will be $99.

Like the rest of the company, Kalmar is focused on fulfillment. But she is also wondering what will happen after 10,000+ Shines are collecting and transmitting data from people’s wrists, necklaces, and pockets.

“My question is: What should we be doing with all this data?” she asks. “And how do we make it useful?”

The quandary for Misfit Wearables and Kalmar: the possibilities, and the fun, increase dramatically when these devices talk to each other: when the refrigerator door won’t open until your health monitor registers a minimum number of steps.

“As a field, we really want our devices to connect to other devices,” she says. “The kinds of questions we can address will become much more interesting when we have multiple simultaneous streams of data.”

But an Internet of Things device that freely gives away all its data risks becoming a commodity hardware company. At this early stage there is also very little standardization among devices. Most health trackers monitor “steps” for example, but there’s no standard about what a “step” is.

Shine also tracks bicycling and swimming — how do you represent these as steps? Is a “step” for breaststroke the same as a “step” for butterfly?

At the Hardware Innovation Workshop, Kalmar will be discussing these challenges at Wednesday’s “Things and the Internet” panel with her fellow panelists (Eric Jennings and Sally Carson, co-founders, Pinoccio; and Brent Polishak, co-founder and president, Beyond 5) and with HIW attendees.

“There are still many questions that are unresolved,” Kalmar says. “What does ‘open data’ mean? Does it mean that you give it all away? Or that you adhere to open standards? Or does it mean that you allow customers to access their own data?”

Although the nascent health tracking field is generating more questions than answers, Kalmar has made a few discoveries after living with a gaggle of electronic devices. “I’ve learned that I can’t get my data, and I’ve learned that there’s still a huge gap between personal health trackers and medical applications,” she says.

“We’d all like to work on medical applications,” she adds, “there are important and obvious questions there. But the safety and regulatory hurdles make it difficult to iterate rapidly with medical devices, and it is harder to develop in a user-centered way.”

With personal health devices, by contrast, “it’s easier to follow the lean approach and see what works,” she says. “Importantly, it’s also much easier to study what drives user engagement.”

Ultimately that leaves a lot of room for these personal health trackers to develop and flourish.

In the meantime, Kalmar, data scientist, will keep pushing out into the information frontier these devices are creating.

“We want to make the information as open as possible,” she says. “But I’m still trying to figure out what ‘as possible’ means.”


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DC Denison is the co-editor of The Maker Pro Newsletter, which covers the intersection of makers and business. That means hardware startups, new products, and market trends.

DC manages customer stories at Acquia, the digital experience company.

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