Fattening Pigs by Weighing Them

At the risk of sounding like a ‘Sayings Nazi’, there’s yet another saying that gets right on my nerves.  As with “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, there’s undeniably a utilitarian motivation behind it’s invocation.  It also benefits from being absolutely true in some cases.  However true it might be in some cases though, I just don’t believe that it’s been properly thought about in most cases in which I hear it deployed.

The saying is “you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it”, and it amounts to an accusation that you’re improperly directing resources into measuring activity rather than into action itself.

Indulge me for a second. Let me bridge to an alternative saying, then let me disprove it.

You don’t reduce the weight of a human by weighing it

I am a fatty.  I’m not a fatty to the extent that they’re going to have to take my foot, but I do have a displeasingly flabby midriff and a pair of man-breasts.  This puts me in the tough middle ground.  I don’t eat 30 donuts and day, so there aren’t quick wins to be had by cutting those out.  I’m also not altogether inactive, I just don’t get myself moving as much as I should.

I’ve tried to remedy this unfortunate position a few times in the past, with varying degrees of success, but this time I think I might have cracked it.  The answer, you’ve guessed it, is measurement.

Wearable tech is on the verge of becoming big business, with Google poised to catapult the category from nerdy trinket to must-have gadget with it’s Android Wear OS.  Despite the pancake landing that wearable tech releases have had (see Galaxy Gear), the sub-category of wearable tech that has gained significant traction has been fitness-focussed tech.

I’ve been using the Jawbone Up system, but many others are available and they all do similar things.  I’m not going to turn this into a tech review, but I am going to draw out the important features and benefits of the system.

report against daily target

Daily targets and progress updates

Daily performance against target.  Using a combination of the wrist-band-measured activity and sleep duration & quality; and manual entries for workouts and food intake, the app presents you with a daily comparison of each against a target (complete with animated fanfare if the target is exceeded).  Many is the time that I’ve gone for a stroll around the block, or have rejected a desert in order to hit my daily target.  This is a good thing.

Automated insights.  Arranged into “Insight Cards” are various insights into my behaviour.  Today’s, for example, tells me that “The past 7 days you averaged 1h 52m of movement per day, more than enough for the 60m daily that experts recommend to prevent weight gain”.  Others might tell me that my sugar consumption is creeping up and that I should reign it in.  This is really simple, and really powerful.  It adds meaningful and actionable insight to the raw data.

Long term trends

Long term trends

Trends and data comparison.

Any of the available metrics (including total sleep, deep sleep, calories consumed, calories burnt, steps, sodium consumed, etc…) can be aggregated by day/week/month and compared.  This is really powerful as an immediate visual barometer of whether I’m ‘doing better’ or not.

Data integration

The underlying UP data is available at the end of an API, and there are services (like www.ifttt.com) that make it trivial for even the least technical user to do some pretty neat things, like post a tweet if you beat your daily steps target, or log a visit to the gym.  The system also receives data from other sources, such as Strava, which in turn measures heart rate data with a Bluetooth heart rate monitor, which augments the data and improves the accuracy of the calorie burn measurement.

So, to the moral of the story, I have not reduced my weight just by measuring it, but I most certainly would not have seen the same progress had I not measured it, and measured the drivers for it.

“But what’s all this got to do with a data analytics consultancy, for Pete’s sake”.  Well dear reader, skim back over the points above, but this time swap out ‘stopping Tom from being a fatty’ with ‘delivering our profit forecast’, ‘calories consumed’ with ‘conversion rate’ and ‘time in deep sleep’ with ‘average revenue’.  In the same way, those same capabilities – daily performance visualisations, automated trends and insights, long term trend and data comparison & data integration – are the tools that keep your finger on the pulse of your business and give you the insights necessary to effect positive change on your bottom line.

Of course, the act of weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it, but it will show you whether it’s putting on weight as expected – and with further diagnostic measurement – whether or not it has pig lurgy, whether it’s getting enough food, whether it’s pregnant, has a leg off – that sort of thing.

P.S.  Also – Zombies Run!