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Personal fitness and free software

by Joshua Gay Contributions Published on Feb 14, 2014 03:41 PM

The Center for Disease Control estimates that as of 2010, 79 million Americans aged twenty years or older have prediabetes, a dangerous condition that greatly increases a person's risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. As of 2010, the CDC estimates that 25.8 million people--8.3% of the population--currently have diabetes.

The Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) was a federally funded study of more than three thousand people at high risk for diabetes. The DPP showed that a 5--7% reduction in body weight through diet and exercise can delay and sometimes prevent type 2 diabetes. Building on this study, the CDC's National Diabetes Prevention Program recommends the development of community-based, group lifestyle intervention programs for overweight or obese people at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Today we live in a world where people seek solutions on their personal computers (big and small). Where we eat, where we go, who we collaborate with, and how we coordinate and communicate with each other, are strongly influenced by the hardware and software we use. Therefore, it is no great leap to speculate that many of the approaches and solutions people come up with when tackling this growing health epidemic will involve computers and Internet technologies.

This issue is not simply a theoretical one. Recently, wearable fitness devices have grown in popularity, offering the possibility of weight and exercise management to those at risk for diabetes. There are already rapidly growing companies, such as Jawbone and Fitbit, that sell hundreds of thousands of personal health and fitness devices each year. These devices monitor heart rate, temperature, sleep cycles, location, and more. Though this data could be valuable in addressing the issue of diabetes and prediabetes, none of these devices are designed to respect a user's freedom. In my research of the numerous applications that are designed to interact with these devices, I was unable to find a single one that was free software.

At this moment, free software advocates simply have no choices when it comes to wearable computing devices.

This is not cause for despair. As free software activists we are powerful agents for change. Join me in viewing this explosion of fitness devices and software as an opportunity to explain to people, with whole new examples, the issue of computer user freedom and why it matters not just to each individual, but to society at large.

Use this opportunity to find other activists that are coming at health care and fitness from other angles and are also seeking to make a more just and fair world. When you explain what free software is in relation to wearable fitness devices, explain that the freedom to share software is the freedom to give your neighbor a powerful tool that can help them monitor and improve their personal health. The freedom to study a program and to make improvements to it is the freedom for individuals to learn and adapt technologies to meet their unique health care needs. The freedom to share those improvements with their communities and over the global Internet is the freedom to use technology to diminish the suffering of hundreds of millions of people and to make the world a more hospitable and prosperous place for all.

Though the group of metabolic diseases we call diabetes is a serious and important global health issue, it is just one of many. This new generation of wearable personal fitness devices is just a tiny fraction of the myriad hardware products and their associated software designed for medical, personal health care, or personal fitness. Just ask the cyborg lawyer and GNOME Foundation executive director, Karen Sandler, about the proprietary software sitting on her heart.

What this means is that it is all the more important that each of us, as free software activists, talk to health care and fitness professionals about the importance of computer-user freedom. Whether you are in the doctor's office or just looking for a wearable device that can help you shed a few pounds, use this opportunity to discuss issues of computer user freedom and make the case that free software is essential to creating a free, healthy, and prosperous society.

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