You know it’s that time of the year when High Street soundtracks remind you that “tis the season to be jolly”. Christmas beckons, and without sounding too much like Grinch, I’d like to say that festive cheer doesn’t come without some guilt-free, feel-good face-stuffing, but that usually results in me not feeling very “gay” when (failing to) “don any apparel” after the holidays. As a self-conscious 20-year old, I can’t help but already start thinking about those love handles before they even start creeping up my waistline come Jan 2015. And if you clicked into this article, I bet it’s more or less a concern for you as well.

The burning question, then, is how we can grant ourselves the emotional carte blanche to pig out without suffering the physical consequences of being a reckless glutton. But fear not comrades, because I’m here to tell you how we can harness the ability of data to pre-empt those Christmas pudding-pounds. Rather than turning it into a New Year’s Resolution as most would, perhaps it’s high time the data-savvy started seeing it as a Christmas precautionary measure.

The magic of numbers: MyFitnessPal

First off, cue MyFitnessPal – a wildly popular personal tracking app which claims to provide “access to the world’s largest nutrition and calorie database”. Having lost 20 pounds after high school with this app, I can personally attest to its effectiveness. For the individual, it all boils down to the magic of numbers – and more specifically, the impact of ‘life-logging’ on psychology and decision-making. As a form of descriptive metadata, tracking your diet and nutritional details online has been proven to yield substantial results. For one, there’s the adrenaline rush that comes with hitting targets, and it also helps that MyFitnessPal has mastered the idiom of encouragement. “You have logged in for 50 days in a row!”; “This food contains lots of Vitamin A!”; “You have lost 5 kg so far!”; “You have completed your food diary today!” – the sense of achievement that comes out of this digital camaraderie is like a throwback to primary school, when your favourite teacher spurred you on with a big thumbs-up or a star-shaped sticker. More importantly, however, is the self-awareness about food that this ‘exercise’ in digital logging enhances.

In a recent interview for Health 2.0, Mike Lee, CEO and co-founder of MyFitnessPal, reveals his biggest ‘aha’ moment was finding out that mayo contains 90 calories per tablespoon (compared to only 5 for mustard),“since that day, I haven’t eaten mayo… and it’s saved me thousands of calories over the years.” This is not to say that certain foods should be ‘demonised’ or banned as such, but that personal tracking does help us to be more cognisant of what we are putting into our bodies. Knowing the numerical truth is thus the first step towards demystifying our relationship with food: now that we are aware of how ‘eyeballing’ or ‘guestimating’ portion sizes could often be wide off the mark from reality, we can make more informed, healthier choices as consumers.

The power of numbers: Weight Watchers’ Feel Good Cafe

For the basic user who’s just looking to shed some excess flab, then, this is all good and well (bar the dangers of developing eating disorders, but too much of a good thing is always bad, and it is our own responsibility to keep any obsessive tendencies in check). Blogger sarahkmoir, however, shows that this new generation of personal trackers is looking for something more. They will no longer settle for being mechanical data-bots who simply ‘tally’ their calories day in, day out; instead, she writes in an October 2014 blog post that they want companies to start “turning their data into meaningful narratives for people”.

In fact, this cast of mind is exactly what bridges the individual, the company and the wider community within the data-sharing paradigm. A user may find out for him-/herself that a meal containing 200 grams of bok choy, 1 portion of salmon fillet and 150 grams of brown rice makes a healthy 350-calorie dinner, but this is just one permutation out of a million other healthy ones. Moreover, what can it tell companies about the latest nutritional trends and general consumer preferences – all of which are valuable information that they can convert into business opportunities?

This is where Weight Watchers’ Feel Good Cafe comes in as an interesting case study. Recently opened in May 2014, this restaurant at Hoxton Square uses ‘social media sharing’ as its currency for food – instead of paying in money pounds, you ‘pay’ by posting a blog entry (and a hash-tagged selfie) on how the experience will (hopefully) help you shed some body pounds. This may seem like PR gimmickry to some, but what the company is doing precisely addresses sarahkmoir’s need: it registers the tremendous value of consumer data, and so it weaves each consumer’s data (selfie/blog post) into the collective ‘narrative’ of a like-minded community, thus ‘letting the data speak for itself’ by revealing multiple differentiations and intersections in health choices, culinary tastes and purchase decisions.

What this business model is doing is ‘operationalising’ Big Data: while the numbers are important, it is the management and interpretation of such numbers that will unearth greater business potential. Indeed, it appears that Weight Watchers have adopted some of Andreas Wiegend’s ‘8 rules for organisations in search of a big data strategy’ to convert “data set to tool set to skills set to mindset”, among which the first four are most relevant:

1) Start with the problem, not with the data.

2) Share data to get data.

3) Align interests of all parties.

4) Make it trivially easy for people to contribute, connect, collaborate.

How does the Feel Good Cafe adopt these principles in its operational structure?

(1) What inspired the cafe’s launch was precisely a research that identified a problem: According to a Weight Watchers-commissioned paper, “over half of UK women (52%) unsure where to begin when contemplating weight loss and fewer than one in ten (8%) feeling confident when it comes to making healthier food choices.”

(2) The cafe shares ‘data’ in the form of free, healthy, ProPoints-verified meal options, and in return, it receives customer-generated ‘data’ in the form of publicised feedback on Instagram and the blog-o-sphere.

(3) In its quid pro quo equation of ‘insight-for-food’, the company seems more than happy to forgo money for data. And as for the consumers – win-win much?

(4) The company is bang-on with this criterion: with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram at our smartphone-attached fingertips, there is nothing easier for us than to ‘contribute’ our thoughts and ‘connect’ with other members by sharing with an online community of health-conscious souls. And by doing so, the consumer will have already ‘collaborated’ perfectly with the restaurant.

At this point, the success of MyFitnessPal and the hype surrounding the London Feel Good Cafe might seem to suggest some kind of technological utopianism, where data handling seems to exist in a happy equilibrium with weight management. The truth is obviously more nuanced than that, and whether the current optimism will stand the test time is still yet to be seen. What we can be certain about, however, is that at present both the individual and the enterprise can use the existing food and nutritional database to their respective advantage. As Gary Wolf, co-founder of lifelogging platform The Quantified Self, puts it aptly at a TEDCannes talk four years ago, “we often think of data tools as pointing outward, as windows”, but “when we think about using them to get some systematic improvement, we must think about how they can be used for self-improvement, self-discovery, self-awareness, and self-knowledge”.

Ultimately then, it’s up to each and every one of us to decide what to do with our data and how to use it in a way that achieves goals – whether they be personal or commercial. So next time you’re at Starbucks, you might want to consider looking up the nutritional information of that Cranberry White Chocolate Latte before taking the festive plunge – and don’t say we didn’t warn you first.

Jennifer ChanJennifer Chan is currently an English Literature finalist at the University of Oxford. She has taken up many editorial roles, having been the online editor of The Oxford Student, one of the two major newspapers on campus; the economics editor of The Oxonian Globalist, an academically-oriented journal on international affairs; and the editorial assistant of the 2014-5 Oxford University Careers Guide. Jennifer is passionate about exploring the relevance of Big Data to the ‘every man’, gauging the function that data analytics may play in the equalisation of education, and familiarising the public with this concept through examples drawn from daily life.

(Image credit: Dan Cunningham)

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