All That Data: What Health Researchers Can Do With Pokemon GO

Nearly one in five Australians use an activity tracking device daily or nearly daily. Of the people who use activity trackers, three-quarters are prepared to share that data, on the proviso that it is anonymously used for health and medical research.

This is where Pokemon GO — the wildly popular app that gets users out and about instead of behind their tablet or TV — has got the attention of the Australian health and medical researchers.

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“You have an app which is getting gaming — often a sedentary affair — out of the living room and into the world, and that can only have immediate health benefits,” explains Research Australia CEO Nadia Levin.

Walking has been described as the nearest thing to a perfect exercise as it costs nothing, can be done almost anywhere and is suitable for people of all fitness and skill levels. But more broadly, the interactive and inherently social nature of Pokemon GO has implications for walking and running apps which often don’t really give back.

Collecting mass data of a diverse segment of the Australian population is no easy feat — but with a mainstream app to do the heavy lifting, furthering that collection for research purposes is feasible.

“Our survey showed that 19 per cent of the population currently actively tracks their exercise, and three quarters of those would be willing to share that data with health and medical researchers,” Levin says. “That’s why an app like Pokemon GO has got our attention, because if the statistics translate to gamers then we have a whole dataset that we can catch (pun intended) for research.”

Ms Levin said a lot has been said up until now about the privacy implications from Pokemon GO, but not so much the incredible potential applications for the health and medical community. Obviously people need to be safe and aware of their surroundings, and the excitement from researchers is not about one specific product or game, but the broader possibilities.

“What we are excited about is highlighting the possibilities of personalised medicine, and the power to be derived from harnessing technology to understand personal and global health,” she said.

Levin explains that personalised medicine will be the way of the future, so we will need personalised health data, which will involve participation of patients and the public outside laboratory settings. Researchers are investigating innovative methods for collecting data from ordinary people going about their day-to-day activities, and this kind of technology holds promise.

“At the moment, the data that could construct a picture of Australian exercise and health trends is somewhat constrained to people who actively engage with exercise apps and tools,” Levin says. “If you can take away the markers of personal identification, then suddenly we could have a resource that could be used in the planning of personalised medicine.”

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