3 Ways to Use Big Data to Keep Your Company Healthy

Health-and-fitness trackers are becoming increasingly popular with tools such as the Fitbit, Apple Watch and other devices that help you log speed, distance and calories burnt. For example, one of our colleagues is running the Boston Marathon today. Because of chip timing technology and volunteered data by the runners, we are able to cheer her on our virtually from our office desks (go Bethany!). We can easily follow her pace per mile, how she is doing in comparison to other runners and her projected finish time.

As a big data startup, we offer a similar concept for our employees’ health and fitness activities. Health and fitness is a defining facet of our culture at Umbel and we are a very active group of people collectively, from everyday workout routines to competing in races and rides around the country. As an added bonus of having an incredible Engineering team, we’ve been able to take one of our fitness programs to the next level by creating a custom online app to encourage fitness activity at Umbel, called the Umbel Fit Mileage Challenge.

The basic concept of the the Umbel Fit Mileage Challenge is to reward employees for miles logged by walking, running, or any other general physical activity done while wearing a Fitbit device. Umbel provides (at no cost to employees) Fitbit devices for any employee interested in participating in the program. Once an employee receives his/her Fitbit and begins to use it, that employee then syncs his/her Fitbit data to a custom app we’ve built internally using the Fitbit API. For every 250 miles an employee surpasses, he/she earns a variety of rewards including gift cards, donations to charities of his/her choice and unique fitness/wellness experiences.

Since the Umbel Fit Mileage Challenge started in the summer of 2014, Umbel employees have logged over 20,000 miles using Fitbit activity trackers. To put that distance in perspective, it’s the equivalent of traveling on foot from Austin (where we call home) to Seattle and back nearly 5 times. That’s a pretty impressive feat for a company that just recently surpassed the 50 employee mark.  

When we started this program, the custom app was built as a minimal viable product to see if we’d have any employees consistently participating or let alone even participating at all. For the first 6 months we manually ran via command line a Python script a couple times each month that would generate an output of mileage data for each employee. That data was then loaded into Microsoft Excel and turned into a pretty chart that was shared with the team via email (including any earned rewards).

At the start of this year, we tasked our engineering team to help build out a true 1.0 version of that our employees could use themselves — accessing their data at any time to see their own results in the Umbel Fit Mileage Challenge along with the data of teams and the entire company. Building the self-service app has helped immensely from an administration standpoint, but has also enhanced our ability to encourage participation in the program. Right now we have over 72% of employees at Umbel actively participating and continue to generate excitement from new employees that are interested in the program.

There are a number of areas we plan to expand and grow the app in the 2.0 version sometime later this year, including the addition of cycling data from services like Strava (we have a lot of avid bicycle riders here in Austin), as well as the ability to encourage, cheer on and even challenge fellow employees.  

If you are interested in building out a similar program at your company, here are some lessons learned that can help you maximize participation and results:

Allow employees to participate immediately upon starting with your company

We order Fitbits for our new hires on the first day they start and try to get them up and running the program in the first week. Once they’ve decided to opt in to the program, they can immediately participate in the Umbel Fit Mileage Challenge and see how they are ranking against other employees. We try to empower knowledge with transparency of data and built our app to make sure and allow everyone in the organization to see where they stand at any time (and also anyone else on the team for that matter).  They can also log into fitbit.com to view other data points such as how many hours of sleep they are getting, how many times they woke up throughout the night and also log their food intake.

Use activity trackers that have the great combination of hardware, software, customer service and access to data easily via an API

We chose Fitbit at Umbel because we believe they accel on each of those criteria. Purchase activity trackers for your employees and pay for (a reasonable number of) replacement devices. Buying the device removes a barrier to entry in getting started and maintain traction (if they happen to get lost or end up in the washer/dryer).

Set challenging, but still achievable benchmarks to hit as part of the program

Employees at Umbel on average earn rewards every 2 to 3 months. Make the rewards meaningful and flexible to attract a broad audience. We allow immense flexibility with gift card purchases and donations made to organizations our employees are passionate about.  We’ve also helped make some really cool things happen, like sending one of our marathoners (Bethany Nagel) to Boston for the marathon this week (Umbel paid for her flight to Boston and back). 

The emergence of wearable fitness devices and smart phones over the past 5 years has enabled an entirely new way to build corporate fitness programs and leverage data to help keep your employees happy and healthy.