Co.Design

Massive Health iPhone App Gets You To Eat Better, Using The Crowd's IQ

The Eatery is just the beginning of a suite of health apps that use smart behavior hacks and data-intensive insights.

Trying to eat better? You’re not alone. You and your fellow travelers spend tens of billions a year on diet-related products and services. It’s a big industry with an extremely questionable track record. Take a step further back to look at health care and we jump a few orders of magnitude more, with annual U.S. expenditures up in the trillions.

It is here that Massive Health, led by CEO Sutha Kamal sees a design opportunity. "Your body is the ultimate interface problem," says the company’s website. "Sometimes, it just doesn’t give you the feedback you need."

The company envisions a range of well-designed products that can improve those feedback loops and help improve the daily habits of their future customers. By "well designed" I don’t just mean "nice looking," though that’s a part of it. At its heart, Massive Health is a big data company and the real design work they are doing is marrying a simple front end to a surprisingly deep back end. Speaking with Kamal, you quickly understand that there is a layered long-term plan being implemented in phases.

To start, they’ve set their sights on your terrible eating habits and the diet industry’s routine failure to fix them. Their first foray is called The Eatery (Massive Health Experiment 01) and it’s an iPhone app that lets you take pictures of everything you eat.

The food diary is a common strategy used by doctors and nutritionists helping their patients eat better. There’s a lot of research that shows that getting someone to record everything they eat drives change, says Kamal. The Eatery is what happens when you take a food diary and connect it to a social network and a massive back end.

Here’s how it works: You snap a photo of your meal and caption it. The app guesses where you are (you can adjust this as well as your portion size) and then you drag the picture onto a sliding scale from "Fit" to "Fat" based on how healthy you think the food is. You are then given the anonymous images of a few other people’s meals to similarly rate. After awhile, the crowd will have rated your meal. Every week, you can go back and track trends with a nice set of visualizations.

If this seems like a kind of wishy-washy way to track your eating habits, Kamal wants you to know that this is on purpose. Most diet apps, he says, try to provide extremely specific information by pulling calorie counts and other data from online sources and previously entered meals. But the burrito you are eating probably has almost nothing in common with the burrito your search pulls up. It’s false precision.

The important thing isn’t the exact number of calories that you are eating, says Kamal, it’s the changes over time. "We don’t care what you had for lunch today. The questions is: Are you eating better this week than you ate last week?" It’s about tracking and encouraging marginal changes and transforming habits.

There is a tradeoff that must be made when gathering data. High-fidelity data like exact portion sizes and other details of your meals might be useful, but the time and effort required to gather that information means that most people won’t do it. The Eatery chooses instead to make it really easy to record your meal, going for high density of data instead. "I get way more meals, even though I know less about each individual meal."

In fact, says Kamal, the more subjective approach to data gathering, itself, reveals interesting information. This is the moment where the big data mindset of Massive Health becomes clear. Remember the anonymous meals snapped by others that you were rating?

"There’s a lot of other information we know about the pictures we’re showing you," says Kamal. "While you might feel like all you’re doing is playing a little game, we’re gathering a ton of information about what you think is healthy."

Some of those images were created by users like you, but others were reviewed by nutritionists. In other words, some of the images you are rating are images for which Massive Health has known good information about the healthiness of the meal. When you rate those images, you aren’t simply helping Massive Health give other users feedback, you are telling Massive Health how good you are at guessing how healthy your food is.

The goal is not only that you will start eating better, but that over time, you will get better at figuring out what’s healthy. By quietly testing you, Massive Health can begin to find out if that’s working. They can see how far you deviate from their expected answer and see if that deviation eventually improves. Some eagle-eyed users have filed bug reports where they notice they’ve been asked to rate the same image more than once. "It’s actually not a bug," says Kamal. "It’s interesting to see: how consistently are you rating over time?"

As Massive Health continues to run the service and gather users’ data, they begin to be able to do more interesting computation on it. Kamal says that over the next few months, we can expect to see all kinds of new features rolling out that exploit what they’ve learned, to give users nudges in the right direction. "Imagine if you could have a personal trainer who knew you and cared about you who could show up for 30 seconds 10 times a day," says Kamal. The emphasis is on small regular interventions instead of asking for longer deep engagement from the users.

It’s an intriguing approach, and one reminiscent of how Google, that biggest of big data companies, tamed the web. Rather than trying to create a top-down directory, PageRank found signals in the chaotic noise of the network. Similarly, Massive Health’s approach is to gain insights from the idiosyncratic activity of its users. Both companies also see the value in hiding all of that information behind a very simple interface.

"Everyone talks about big data in health care, and traditionally that means 'How do I suck information out of electronic health records?' or 'How do I get a zillion sensors on your body?'" Kamal says. With this app, Massive Health charts out a different approach. Remember, The Eatery is Massive Health Experiment 01. That number at the end implies there’s a whole lot more to come.

[Top image by MnemosyneM/Shutterstock]

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15 Comments

  • Enji

    I like the idea much more than others that I've tried. I used one that used to ask me to include what the calorie count was for everything and it was really time consuming. Also, typing in each one even with a memorizing feature was just too much to ask of me. Keeping it simple and convenient is really the key.

    This one is really quite convenient. Anyone who wants to keep track of their eating habits has to actively participate somehow. Bring out a phone and snapping a quick photo is the least intrusive method I've seen so far. I don't need to know the exact numbers behind my food choices. As long as I can label it good, okay, and bad, I get the jist of whether I've been good to myself or not.

    Although the input ratings from others is unnecessary for me, it's not annoying or off-putting in any way.

  • alittledabble

    I've been using this app and am hooked.  The community base is quite tough about what is healthy and what isn't.  What i really like is having a photo log of what I ate all week.  That's been quite enlightening to see that I'm not eating enough x, y, and z, and am eating too many carbs and processed food. It's also useful to see a snapshot of how many disposable products I'm using, so I've switched to reusable cups for my coffee and water. The visual representation has a big impact.  And you can use  saved pics of things you eat all the time (ie: my morning coffee) or type in text of what you ate later, so that helps since you can't always take a picture of every food you eat. 

  • Stevelucas95

    We are tired of those startups that do anything to manipulate people to "invite their friends" and "increase traffic and engagement"... When the product is free, the user is the product :(

  • Profayers

    A major weakness with this approach to diet improvement is the weak science base of the nutrition authorities, i.e. if you eat according to the authorities you will have the diseases for which the authorities have pharmaceutical treatments. Basing a diet system on false information can't work. Cereal, vegetable oil, antioxidants, grain fiber, etc. are all controversial (based on research) and of questionable benefit. What will this system recommend as healthy meals?

  • Ruby Red

    I agree. What "most" people think is healthy, is absolute rubbish. "Whole grains" "seed oils" "low fat" - all that stuff is crap. Give me a pile of rare-cooked meat with bacon on top any day and I'll be satisfied for hours without needing to snack. 

  • someone

    This could be good, just because it makes people accountable for what they are putting in their mouth.  I feel like a lot of times people don't pay attention which just leads to irresponsible eating habits.  Anyway  I'm just glad its not another, "here take this pill and lose some weight" thats the definition of insanity if you want a change you need to make one- you can't just do the same thing repeatedly expecting different results.  so hopefully this will help people make those changes.

  • healthmatters

    Anything and everything that helps even one less person become obese has got to be good. For some people it is an exact science that they need, for others that is too much, for others it is just about being a bit accountable and thinking before they eat the donuts - it does look too hard to me (and I love this stuff and am a fitness professional) but for some of my clients who love a bit of technology in their day it could be good.
    I wish them all the best because massive societal change happens with many many incremental changes and this can only help!

  • Chubbykat

    Ummm ... I'm going to ask nutrition feedback from the populus? Have you SEEN the populous? Isn't this like (and I hate this phrase) "the blind leading the blind"? 
    I TOTALLY disagree with a diet not being about the exact numbers. It's ALL about the numbers. 
    It took time to put on the weight, it's going to take time to take it off, and those numbers "count". The main reason people give up when adjusting their eating habits is they don't see fast results. The "exact numbers" help with that. They actually "control" that.
    Sorry. I just don't see this working.
    Maybe for a few weeks or a month, but ... the window of change is short with the general public.

  • xy123123

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  • Waferu

    So you never know the calories, carbs, and general unhealthiness of the food you eat ever? I know when I eat out and its a burger and fries, its not unhealthy. If i'm eating a salad, probably more on the healthy. the middle ground of the ambiguous is what they are testing, and how you should be testing yourself. Its not hard to ask someone at a restaurant how many calories your dish has, most can tell you. 

  • PlusNavigator

    I'm excited to try this app, I'm snapping photos of my food out of habit via foursquare when I dine out, so a few extra photos would be a bad thing. I think logging calories, protein, fiber, carbs, sugar is very important as I learn how to eat better (its a process), however the concept of shifting eating from just a numbers game is just as valuable. Excellent write-up, I'll be sharing this find with my personal trainer!

  • Simon Petherick

    It is a great concept, and I admire the idea. I used it for a while and enjoyed it, and it helped focus on what I was eating. But ultimately it fails, because the onus of having to get your phone out and photograph everything you eat becomes too much, too intrusive, and eventually I just didn't want that level of intrusion in daily life. I had one too many dull pauses in restaurants waiting for the photo to upload. Best of luck to them anyway.