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Smartphone Apps and Activity – tracking trends in who, how and when we move

Someone doing up a shoelace and wearing a fitness tracker watch

Smartphone apps and activity – tracking trends in who, how and when we move

The advantages of being physically active have never been more apparent, with proven benefits across a wide range of health conditions. Traditionally, we might consider the beneficial role of physical activity to be in reducing obesity incidence and preventing non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown further positives into the spotlight, as being physically active has been shown to reduce the risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes. Moreover, lockdowns and state-sanctioned time for exercise highlighted the importance of physical activity to mental health and wellbeing.

Physical inactivity is responsible for 1 in 6 deaths in the UK (equivalent to the risk from smoking1), with 1 in 3 men and 1 in 2 women not meeting the recommended 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week1. To reduce physical inactivity, we need to identify and remove the barriers to being active. These barriers are diverse and wide ranging, varying from person to person. Examples include, but are not limited to: increasingly sedentary occupations, time or monetary constraints and environments that do not support activity.

To best identify what and where these barriers to being active are, we need to establish a good understanding of where, when and how people are active. However, studies investigating physical activity behaviour are typically limited by sample sizes, small study areas and shorter study durations.

Increasingly, individuals are monitoring their own activity and fitness levels using smartphone apps or wearable trackers such as Fitbit, Garmin or smartwatches. Secondary use of these consumer data can provide researchers with new insights into physical activity behaviour. In this research, we use secondary app data provided by FUELL Ltd‘s Bounts app (available for use by researchers via application to the CDRC). We evaluate how useful secondary smartphone data are in providing insight into how active the public are. To do this, we first need to assess how representative app users are of the population as a whole. Finally we uncover key activity behaviours associated with different age and gender user profiles.

The app – who is using it?

The Bounts app was commercially available on all major app provider stores, with users earning points for activities which could later be exchanged for vouchers and prizes. All user data is pseudonymised and no identifiable user information is shared with the researchers. Additionally, data is only accessible to those with data security training and in a data secure environment.

We used the data of 30,804 app users who recorded seven or more days of activity in 2016. With an average user age of 39, women make up a significantly larger proportion of app users (77.7% of users). 43.8% of users provided a postcode district which we linked to the Office for National Statistics socioeconomic classification. Unlike traditional studies, which tend to underrepresent lower socio-economic groups, we found there was no substantial socioeconomic difference in the areas where Bounts users lived compared to the general population.

Research highlights

Seasonal and weekly trends in physical activity behaviour

Users recorded on average 218 days of activity, which is substantially longer than the typical seven-day data collection period in traditional physical activity studies. Thanks to this long monitoring period, we were able to observe distinct patterns in activity behaviour across weekly and seasonal timeframes.

Across the year, we can see the role daylight saving plays, with a higher number of activities recorded by users over the summer months when evenings are longer, dropping off in autumn as the days get shorter (Figure 1).

Figure 1 – Seasonal trend heatmap of total daily activity recorded by all app users
Figure 2 – Heatmap of total daily activity recorded by all app users standardised by week, highlighting weekly patterns of behaviour

We can also see a weekly pattern in activity behaviour with the highest number of activities recorded mid-week, peaking on Tuesdays (Figure 2). Higher weekday activity levels are suspected to be functional activity around commuting behaviours. This goes against the ‘weekend warrior’ theory that individuals tend to exercise more on the weekends and less on weekdays.

A higher level of functional activity is associated with women and those in less affluent socioeconomic groups. This corresponds to our user sample which has a high proportion of women and captures users from less affluent socioeconomic groups, who are usually underrepresented in physical activity studies.

Who is meeting the physical activity guidelines?

For each week that a user recorded activity, we calculated whether the culmination of this activity was enough to meet physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week. This includes any activity with greater or equal intensity to brisk walking.

Despite the known health benefits, the overall proportion of weeks meeting these physical activity guidelines was low. The youngest and oldest users were the least likely to meet the guidelines, with those aged 35 to 44 most likely to meet the sufficiently active threshold.

Men were almost twice as likely to meet the guidelines, with 24.2% of weeks recorded by male users classed as adequately active compared to 12.4% of weeks recorded by female users. Additionally, living in the most affluent area compared to the least affluent (in terms of employment), improved the odds of recording an active week by almost 5%.

How useful are secondary smartphone data?

Secondary smartphone data are an invaluable tool to provide new insights into physical activity and other health behaviours, as they give a breadth and depth of detailed data not available from other methods.

On the flip side, using these data requires careful consideration, including meticulous implementation of data anonymity and ethics, attention to data handling and cleaning processes, and skilled training to be able to handle such a large detailed dataset. Used in tandem with more traditional primary data collection studies, secondary smartphone app data have the capability to address some of the most complex questions around physical activity behaviour.  We are still very much in the infancy of using these data and have just scratched the surface of their full potential.

Read the full paper: Pontin F, Lomax N, Clarke G, et al. Socio-demographic determinants of physical activity and app usage from smartphone data. Social Science & Medicine 2021: 114235.

References

1. Public Health England. Physical activity: applying All Our Health.  2019.

Celebrating collaboration: the CDRC Masters Dissertation Scheme

Celebrating collaboration: the CDRC Masters Dissertation Scheme

Celebrating collaboration: the CDRC Masters Dissertation Scheme. Thursday 29th April 2021, 10:30-15:00.

The CDRC Masters Dissertation Scheme, now in its tenth year, has been successfully run by the Consumer Data Research Centre for the last seven years. The event celebrated the success of the scheme, and explored the changing nature of academic-industry collaboration. Masters students who had gone through the scheme presented project case studies, and a selection of alumni spoke of the positive impact the scheme had had on their data science careers. A panel session rounded off the event with a discussion of the possibilities and ambitions for the next seven years of the Masters Dissertation Scheme. The event was attended by industry partners, MDS alumni, and the CDRC team including Paul Longley, Alex Singleton, and Jonathan Reynolds.

Speaker biographies

Programme

1030-1130: The Business of Engagement. Session recording (Longley 0:06, Dugmore 7:05, Reynolds 28:27, Squires 41:21)

  • Introduction & welcome: Professor Paul Longley, Director, CDRC
  • The evolution of academic-industry collaboration: Keith Dugmore, Demographic Decisions. Slides
  • CDRC: Where are they now? MDS 7 years on: Dr Jonathan Reynolds, Deputy Director (Oxford), CDRC. Slides
  • The business of engagement: the firm’s perspective: Martin Squires, Director of Advanced Analytics, Pets at Home. Slides

1145-1245: Alumni presentations. Session recording (Murage 2:16, Davies 25:10, Tonge & Montt 45:53)

  • Nombuyiselo Murage, Tamoco. Dissertation at Tamoco. MSc Geographic Data Science, University of Liverpool. Slides
  • Alec Davies, Pets at Home. Dissertation at Sainsbury’s. MSc Geographic Data Science, University of Liverpool, PhD Geographic Data Science. Slides
  • Christian Tonge, Movement Strategies. MSc Geographic Data Science, University of Liverpool, and Cristobal Montt, Movement Strategies. MSc Data Science, City, University of London. Dissertations at Movement Strategies. Slides

1400-1505: Alumni presentations (continued) and panel discussion. Session recording (Ushakova 1:48, Samson 21:29, Panel 37:26)

  • Alumni presentation: Dr Anastasia Ushakova, Senior Research Associate, University of Lancaster. Dissertation at British Gas.
    MSc Public Policy, UCL; PhD Computational Social Science. Slides
  • Alumni presentation: Nick Samson, Associate Director, CBRE. Dissertation at British Gas. MSc Geographic Information Science, UCL. Slides
  • Panel Discussion. The next 7 years. Achievements and ambitions: Alex Singleton, Deputy Director (Liverpool), CDRC;
    Samantha Hughes, Analytics Innovation Manager, Avon; Martin Squires, Director of Advanced Analytics, Pets at Home.
  • Thanks & conclusion: Professor Paul Longley, Director, CDRC

Nick Samson, 2014 MDS alumnus. Dissertation at British Gas. Project title: Can smart meters save consumers and British Gas money and carbon by pinpointing which consumers are most likely and best placed to install insulation in their homes?