June 8, 2012

Unpacking self-tracking

One of the “top tweets” of this week’s Health Datapalooza was one I dashed off on my way to the event:

1 in 4 U.S. internet users track their own health data online – @pewinternet pewrsr.ch/khtiMB #healthdata — SusannahFox (@SusannahFox) June 5, 2012

It was great to see how this research tidbit was treated like news — and if it’s new to you, then yes, I think it is “news.” Unfortunately, some people didn’t click through to read the report section and misinterpreted the findings. Others did click through and felt burned that it was based on a 2010 survey. I have to share the best of those tweets:

#baddata @Rock_Health @susannahfox this data is 2 yr old and didn’t mention frequency. A carney guessed my weight once #stilluseascale — Peter Verrillo (@PeterVOrtho) June 7, 2012

Touché!

When my Pew Internet colleagues and I formulated the questionnaire for the 2010 health survey, we included two exploratory questions about self-tracking. They are not perfect, but I think they were a fine first measure. For everyone’s dissection, please see items E and F:

ASK ALL INTERNET USERS (Q6a=1 or Q6b=1):

Q24    Apart from looking for information online, there are many different activities related to health and medical issues a person might do on the internet.  I’m going to read a list of online health-related activities you may or may not have done.  Just tell me if you happen to do each one, or not.  (First,) have you… [INSERT ITEM; ROTATE]? (Next,) have you…[INSERT ITEM]?

a.       Signed up to receive email updates or alerts about health or medical issues

b.       Read someone else’s commentary or experience about health or medical issues on an online news group, website or blog

c.       Watched an online video about health or medical issues

d.       Gone online to find others who might have health concerns similar to yours

ALWAYS ASK e-f TOGETHER, IN ORDER

e.       Tracked your weight, diet or exercise routine online

f.        Tracked any other health indicators or symptoms online

CATEGORIES

1        Yes

2        No

8        (DO NOT READ) Don’t know

9        (DO NOT READ) Refused

Again, we had no idea how many people would answer “yes” since this was a first-time measurement. It turned out that 15% of internet users have tracked their weight, diet, or exercise routine online and 17% of internet users have tracked any other health indicators or symptoms online. In all, 27% of adult internet users say yes to either question. That’s where I got the “1 in 4 internet users…” referenced in the tweet.

Now I need your help:

  • If you’re a data geek, download the September 2010 data set, dig into the full questionnaire, crosstabs, SPSS, etc., and let me know if you see interesting stuff I missed.
  • If you think these questions need improvement, tell me why in the comments below. How would you expand them? What follow-ups would you ask? Dream big: what open-ended questions would you include (the most time-consuming type of question)? Do you want to know about specific tracking activities? Frequency? Impact on the respondent’s overall health?

I personally believe that if a survey question isn’t relevant and useful then we need to re-examine it. Some of the best ideas for our health surveys have come from our community (for examples, please see: Crowdsourcing a Survey 2008 and Crowdsourcing a Survey 2010). Please leave comments on this blog post or email me directly: sfox at pewinternet dot org. Thanks in advance for the input.