Have you ever forgotten to take your antibiotics? Started a diet only to find yourself hitting the ice cream hard? Seen a loved one fail to get the medical support they require? Have you ever wondered why?
According to Massive Health founder Aza Raskin, one of the biggest flaws in our health care system isn’t procedural or scientific, it has to do with design. “Let me give an analogy,” Raskin says. “If you can’t program a VCR, whose fault is that: yours, or the guy that designed the VCR? If one out of five people don’t finish their antibiotics course, whose fault is it? Is that the fault of people, or the fault of the design of our intervention?”
Raskin–who happens to be the son of the late computer interface expert Jef Raskin, credited with starting the Macintosh project at Apple in the late ‘70s–says the goal of Massive Health is “to make health human while pushing forward design of health for all.” Their first consumer product, an iPhone app called The Eatery, allows users to take photographs of their food, rate the eating habits of others, and track their own behavioral eating trends with the help of some serious social accountability. Since launching around six months ago, Eatery users have captured pictures of half a million foods, which have been rated 8 million times. That kind of data may prove to be invaluable. “Peter Norvig, the guy that leads research at Google, says that for every order of magnitude increase in data size, it obliterates all changes that you can make in algorithms,” Raskin says. “When we look at the health care space, most studies are done with 10 people. Sometimes hundreds. Rarely thousands. Almost never tens of thousands. And once in a generation, you might get a 100,000 person study. With the Eatery, we blew past those numbers in the first week.”
In fact, The Eatery now has hard data about how people eat in 50 nations across the world, and their first report is chock full of fascinating facts: Users who eat breakfast are 12.3% healthier throughout the day. Simply choosing a diet–whether pescaterian, vegan, or something in between–increases healthy choices by 16%. Sunday is the unhealthiest day of the week. “This was an experiment, and it turned out to be an incredibly successful one,” Raskin says. “It gives us the world’s largest database of behavioral eating, which lets us go tackle the next sets of problems that we start to be really interested in. Because all that data is useless if you don’t turn it into meaning, and meaning is useless unless you help somebody act upon it.”
Raskin, a math and physics major, started his career following in his father’s user-interface footsteps, serving as creative lead on the launch of Firefox 4, as well as several startups. His decision to take those skills into the health care realm was fueled from the most personal of places. “My father had late-stage pancreatic cancer,” Raskin says. “The diagnosis was that he had three months to live. Turned out that was accurate almost to the day. And it’s devastating.” But his grief and frustration at the loss of his dad didn’t lead to anger with the medical institution, says Raskin. “It was that his body was sending off signals, and health happened in between doctor visits–and nothing was there to interpret those signals,” he explains. “There are tens of millions of people in similar sort of conditions that could be helped here. It’s not the doctors that are going to do it. It needs to be technology. Because only a cell phone fits in your pocket and knows you better than you know yourself.”
And although much of The Eatery’s success likely stems from the convenience and fun of mobile technology, Raskin says that Massive Health intends to be far more than just an app company. “It’s a very convenient distribution channel,” he explains, “but if you go three years out and all we’ve done is make apps, I think we will not have fulfilled our vision.” He is, however, completely cagey about Massive’s next steps. “The very best interface is a passive interface,” he hints. “We think we have the very best user interfaces out there, but if you don’t have an interface, that’s even better. So that’s what we spend a lot of our time thinking about. How do you capture data about your body and turn it into meaning so that you know when you’re getting sick before it happens?”
One interesting side note: Like fellow Change Generation subject (and good friend) Danielle Fong, Raskin is a serial dropout who ditched a PhD program to get started with practical application. So what is it about his generation of young minds that leads so many to an accelerated life path? “It’s because the thing that drives me is the desire to change people’s lives,” Raskin says. “Being in physics is awesome, but the research you’re working on will spend seven years before it gets published, and then from there it takes another 20 years before it becomes productized in any way. So by the time you’re setting up to retire, that thing you did in college is now maybe making people’s lives better. And that’s just too slow.
“The definition of progress is the ability for any one person to influence many,” he concludes. “At this moment in history, we are for the first time able to have one person create a little bit of software which is distributed to hundreds of millions of people really fast. That’s why you’re now getting people jumping out of the traditional realms. Because you can see the path from your idea to making people’s lives better happen in a timeframe measured in months, and not decades.”
This piece is part of Change Generation, our series on young, change-making entrepreneurs. Read the rest here.