Fitbit exec sees role of wearables expanding

13 Feb 2015

Aideen O'Colmain, Fitbit director of corporate wellness EMEA

As a major new exhibition on ‘lifelogging’ gets under way at Science Gallery Dublin, we catch up with Aideen O’Colmain from Fitbit.

Hands up if you wear a gadget to track your steps, heart rate and perhaps even your nightly slumber. Whether you are a ‘quantified self’ advocate, whether you are looking to keep in shape or if you are just curious about how much you move each day, you can’t have missed the activity tracker revolution happening right under our noses, or more usually on our wrists.

Conditions for growth

Fitbit was one of the early movers in the activity-tracking wearables field, with its neat ‘One’ that can be slipped into a pocket or its range of wrist-bound trackers. Late last year, the company set up its European headquarters in Ireland, and the team includes Aideen O’Colmain, Fitbit director of corporate wellness EMEA, who believes the sector is set to grow.

“You have got the whole awareness of the wearable technology, the prevalence of mobile phones and apps that can capture and visualise the data,” she says. “And there is also a mindset shift that people want to take control of their own health, that it is not someone else’s problem, they can do things and that being proactive about your health is really the way to go.”

Stacking up the numbers

That revolution will be under the microscope over coming weeks as part of the Science Gallery Dublin’s new exhibition. Called ‘Lifelogging: Do You Count?’, it’s a ‘Lab in the Gallery’ event that explores what we can track in our lives and how, and some of the issues surrounding this burgeoning phenomenon.

O’Colmain took part in the brainstorming for the exhibition, and Science Gallery mediators will wear Fitbit Flex or Charge HR devices each day to track their activity, making their data part of the discussion. “I love the Science Gallery, I think it’s a great place and they do fantastic work,” she says. “And this exhibition is very exciting.”

Fitness ‘hacks’

More widely, O’Colmain is interested in seeing how people can apply the basic technology, whether it’s tracking their ‘healthy’ activity or addressing the need to move with a particular condition or operation, such as a hip replacement. “It means the person can take more control and see how much they are walking, rather than having their carers or family telling them to walk,” she says.

The open API on the Fitbit allows users to link their wearable device to numerous other apps and to even ‘hack’ their own motivation, she adds. “People link their data with apps to track their diet, their runs and even their thermostat at home,” she says. “And people have set up a system where they make a contribution to charity if they don’t make their steps target by a certain time in the day. There is so much you can do and it’s clever what people do with it.”

Fitbit is not the only wearable tracker in town, and the arrival of Apple’s Health app and impending smartwatch will undoubtedly have an impact.

O’Colmain sees it as a positive. “I think it will extend the market and I don’t think it necessarily eats anybody’s lunch,” she says. “Rather I think it will bring a whole new awareness of fitness tracking and what devices might do for you.”

Mind the power gap

O’Colmain has spent much of her career working in the telecommunications industry. She originally studied applied science in Trinity College Dublin and Dublin Institute of Technology, specialising in physics and chemistry, then worked with Nortel in England and BT in Ireland.

Fitbit represents a new challenge, and it is one she is relishing. “I enjoy using the technology, and it is a new business that is growing, so it’s really exciting,” she says.

While she has not felt that being a woman in the tech world has held her back, she would like to see greater numbers of women progressing through the corporate hierarchies.

“There are a lot more women in places of high power now,” she says, citing Regina Moran (CEO of Fujitsu Ireland and president of Engineers Ireland) and Anne O’Leary (CEO of Vodafone Ireland) as examples. “It is great to see them progress through to that level but I think there is still a gap, we need to see more women rising up through the ranks.”

But O’Colmain believes that to achieve that will require a work culture that supports everyone. “Work life balance is not just a female issue, it’s a village issue, we need to see the big picture.”

‘Lifelogging: Do You Count?’ opens to the public today at Science Gallery Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, Pearse Street, Dublin 2, and runs until 17 April 2015. Admission to the main exhibition is free. For a full programme and opening times see the Science Gallery website.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Inspire 2015 is Silicon Republic’s international event running 18-19 June in Dublin that connects sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity. Buy your early bird tickets now

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication