WearDuino Shows That Open Source Devices Are a Key Plank in Personal Health

New devices are democratizing health. We see it not only in the array or wearable fitness gear that an estimated 21 percent of Americans own (and that some actually wear), but also in innovative uses for mobile phones (such as testing vision in regions that lack doctors or checking athletes for concussions) and now in low-cost devices that are often open source hardware and software. Recent examples of the latter include the eyeSelfie, which lets a non-professional take an image of his retina, and the WearDuino, a general-purpose personal device that is the focus of this article.

WearDuino is the brainchild of Mark Leavitt, a medical internist who turned to technology (as have so many doctors pursuing visions of radical reform in health care). I ran into Leavitt at the 2015 Open Source convention, where he also described his work briefly in a video interview.

Leavitt’s goal is to produce a useful platform that satisfies two key criteria for innovation: low-cost and open. Although some of the functions of the WearDuino resembles devices on the market, you can take apart the WearDuino, muck with it, and enhance it in ways those closed platforms don’t allow.

Traits and Uses of WearDuino
Technically, the device has simple components found everywhere, but is primed for expansion. A small Bluetooth radio module provides the processing, and as the device’s name indicates, it supports the Arduino programming language. To keep power consumption low there’s no WiFi, and the device can run on a cheap coin cell battery for several months under normal use.

Out of the box, the WearDuino could be an excellent fitness device. Whereas most commercial fitness wearables collect their data through an accelerometer, the WearDuino has an accelerometer (which can measure motion), a gyroscope (which is useful for more complex measurements as people twist and turn), and a magnetometer (which acts as a compass). This kind of three-part device is often called a “9-degree of freedom sensor,” because each of those three measurements is taken in three dimensions.

When you want more from the device, such as measuring heartbeat, muscle activity, joint flexing, or eye motion, a board can be added to one of the Arduino’s 7 digital I/O pins. Leavitt said that one user experimented with a device that lets a parent know when to change a baby’s diaper, through an added moisture detector.

Benefits of an Open Architecture
Proprietary device manufacturers often cite safety reasons for keeping their devices closed. But Leavitt believes that openness is quite safe through most phases of data use in health. Throughout the stages of collecting data, visualizing the relationships, and drawing insights, Leavitt believes people should be trusted with any technologies they want. (I am not sure these activities are so benign–if one comes up with an incorrect insight it could lead you to dangerous behavior.) It is only when you get to giving drugs or other medical treatments that the normal restrictions to professional clinicians makes sense.

Whatever safety may adhere to keeping devices closed, there can be no justification on the side of the user for keeping the data closed. And yet proprietary device manufacturers play games with the user’s data (and not just games for health). Leavitt, for instance, who wears a fitness monitor, says he can programmatically download a daily summary of his footsteps, but not the exact amounts taken at different parts of the day.

The game is that device manufacturers cannot recoup the costs of making and selling the devices through the price of the device alone. Therefore, they keep hold of users’ data and monetize it through marketing, special services, and other uses.

Leavitt doesn’t have a business plan yet. Instead, in classic open source practice, he is building community. Where he lives in Portland, Oregon a number of programmers and medical personnel have shown interest. The key to the WearDuino project is not the features of the device, but whether it succeeds in encouraging an ecosystem of useful personal monitors around it.

About the author

Andy Oram

Andy Oram

Andy Oram writes and edits documents about many aspects of computing, ranging in size from blog postings to full-length books. Topics cover a wide range of computer technologies: data science and machine learning, programming languages, Web performance, Internet of Things, databases, free and open source software, and more. My editorial output at O'Reilly Media included the first books ever published commercially in the United States on Linux, the 2001 title Peer-to-Peer (frequently cited in connection with those technologies), and the 2007 title Beautiful Code. He is a regular correspondent on health IT and health policy for HealthcareScene.com. He also contributes to other publications about policy issues related to the Internet and about trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business.