Even if you've heard the news from Facebook, you might not have seen the implications from a medical/pharma standpoint. Facebook announced a new tool called Facebook Timeline. Scrape away all the marketing copy and you get this: All that stuff you enter into Facebook (and Tumblr and Twitter and Foursquare and Flickr et al) aren't just quips and stories and complaints and jokes and whatnot, they are the ephemeral data about your life.
If your doctor said, "I'd like you to keep track of how many cups of coffee you have, how well you sleep, when you go to the gym, and the like" you'd hear, "Do a bunch of tedious homework." If your doctor said instead, "Hey, since you already track when you go to Starbucks and the gym on Foursquare, and complain about your lack of sleep on Facebook, can you keep doing that?" that sounds easy.
And now you can. Or rather, you already have.
Facebook users already engage in countless acts of data entry... Automated data gathering through smart phones—especially location data—provides even more data to mine.
-Christopher Mims at MIT's Technology Review
And that's where things are about to get interesting. We've been sitting on the precipice of some seriously cool ideas and tools for collecting, measuring and analyzing data, but they've all suffered from one of two problems: Lack of broad support or lack of fun. Facebook solved both those problems.
99% of the people who are interested in, and who would benefit from, collecting and analyzing their own data are stymied by the idea that it's a lot of work. At the end of the day, do you really want to rely on your memory? Or do you want to interrupt your life a dozen times a day and look like a dork doing it? Oh, you're updating one of your social media services? You're no less of a dork, but we all understand now.
And while Facebook is pitching Timeline as a way of easily keeping track of the birthday/breakup/roadtrip/concert parts of your life, people are already thinking about how to leverage all this info for medical and wellness tracking purposes.
Granted, this is Facebook we're talking about. These are not people who have a stellar track record when it comes to privacy. Or trustworthiness. Or professionalism. And while the intent behind all this work is clearly to be able to market products and services to us in a way that may actually be something close to interesting and useful, the opportunity exists for the data to be used in more meaningful ways... assuming Facebook can be persuaded to open the door to others, something it doesn't like to do.
So who's going to be the first to build a Facebook App to start to collect and use people's wellness data?
[Note: Five days after I wrote this, Facebook admits that it is tracking users, even after they've logged out. Can you see the fight Facebook is going to have with the FDA? Like a steel cage match...]