Clutch spoke with Graham Dodge, President and CEO of Sickweather, the data and media platform for public health prediction. The interview is part of a series about wearable technology.
Learn more about Sickweather at Sickweather.com.
Could you describe your company and your role there?
Sickweather is like a Doppler radar for sickness. We have a patent-pending process that distills data from social media and crowd sourcing, to create real-time maps of the spread of illness.
I am the CEO and President of the company.
Could you describe your wearable application, Sickweather?
We have an Apple Watch app that uses a new algorithm that we call Sick Score to measure the amount of contagious illness there is, in relation to a user’s location. So, it effectively acts like a Geiger counter for contagious illness.
The Sickweather Apple Watch app has three main functions.
Top Contagious Illnesses - The next is the list of the top three contagious illnesses, as calculated by the number of reports of those illnesses and their reproductive scores. A reproductive score is an epidemiological term that refers to how contagious an illness is.
Handwashing Timer - The third feature is a handwashing timer, which allows the user to do something when in an area that has a high Sick Score. Tapping the 'Wash Hands' button launches a 20-second timer, a period the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for thorough handwashing and the mitigation of the risk of getting sick.
We definitely wanted to take advantage of being one of the first apps available for Apple Watch – to take advantage in terms of the promotion, the PR that would go along with the initial launch of the Apple Watch, and the excitement around it. That was the impetus for launching on Apple Watch.
After we created the Sick Score algorithm for the Apple Watch, we decided to integrate the feature into both the 'Today Widget Notifications Panel' for iPhone and the home screen widget for Android smartphones.
Certainly, our next step is to make it available for Android wearable devices as well.
Does the Sickweather wearable app require a companion mobile app?
In the first version of Watch OS, the apps developed for Apple Watch have to work in tandem with the iPhone app. So you can’t download jst a native Watch OS app yet. However, Apple has a plan for something like that in Watch OS2, where you can develop native apps for the Apple Watch. I believe though, that it still comes packaged with the iPhone app, which means that if your iPhone is not within Bluetooth range of the Apple Watch, the app can still function without connecting to the iPhone first.
What business challenge or opportunity were you trying to address with the development of a wearable application?
The first real impetus for it was to take advantage of the early adopter opportunity and excitement around the Apple Watch, but we didn’t want to simply extend what we were already doing on the iPhone app to the Apple Watch. We wanted to create a whole new experience that was much more relevant to a wearable platform.
Our development team came up with the idea of this quick, easy-to-reference Threat Level Index – our Sick Score – that could look at all the data that we have in Sickweather within a certain mile radius of your current location and then calculate a Sick Score based on the reproductive scores of the contagious illnesses that we track.
The whole concept was brand new. We thought it could be similar to the Geiger counters that you see in movies: you see people wearing it on their jacket or on their person, and as they get closer to radiation, it beeps or makes sounds. We liked the idea of being able to do that with the contagious illnesses that we’re tracking, so you could easily see when there's a higher risk of getting sick, by glancing at your wrist.
Also, we wanted the wearable app to be something that provided an opportunity for the user to take action. In this case, we wanted to promote hand hygiene, which is one of the best ways people can prevent themselves from getting sick in cold and flu season. That’s why we added the handwashing timer.
Could you describe the process of developing the wearable application?
The Apple Watch launched in April 2014. We started discussing the Apple Watch concept in October 2014, and by late December, early January, we had fully formed our idea, with mock-ups and everything.
At that point, we didn’t know how to get our idea in front of Apple, to see if there was any interest in it and if we could access an Apple Watch to develop on. Eventually, working through my network, we were able to make contact with someone at Apple, who gave us an idea of whether what we were doing was feasible on the Apple Watch platform, since it was a black box at the time, and no one knew what could be done with it.
Duration and Timeline
Between January and April was certainly the accelerated time when we were actually coding the app. It was in a concept and mock-up phase in the first two or three months and then in a development phase for the latter three or four months.
In terms of tracking our internal cost, I would estimate that given our internal resources, we dedicated about $40,000 to the development of the app.
What were the benefits of having an in-house, as opposed to an external, development team?
The process of development was in-house. I would say there is definitely a benefit to having an in-house team, especially when it comes to something that’s experimental and new, because it’s such an organic process. You really don’t know what challenges you’re going to run into. Whereas if you’re developing for a well established platform that developers all over the world are very familiar with, then it makes a lot more sense to hire a contractor to help you. If you’re looking at emerging platforms, I think an in-house team is definitely the best way to go.
What was your marketing strategy surrounding the release of the Sickweather wearable application?
We have done some CPI [Cost Per Install] campaigns on Facebook and Twitter, just to get some brand awareness out there for anyone interested in Apple Watch. We wanted the people tweeting and posting about Apple Watch to see an ad related to our application that promoted our Apple Watch app.
We sent out a press release that got picked up in a few places. Probably most notable, Venture Beat published an article about our Apple Watch concept – about the whole idea that we’ve developed a Geiger counter for illness. That really resonated well with the media in terms of the PR surrounding the launch on our end.
Then, Apple ended up featuring our Apple Watch app on the homepage of the Apple Watch App Store, in their Healthy Living section. So we got further promotion from Apple by being featured in that section.
What challenges did you face during the project’s rollout, and what steps did you take to overcome these challenges?
Even being able to communicate with Apple, there were still challenges with exactly how Watch OS worked with iOS – as in there being consistency with how our app would perform. This is simply by virtue of the fact that we didn’t have Apple Watches in our office to use on a daily basis to test our app.
Now that we actually have Apple Watches that we interact with daily, it makes it easier to understand what bugs may exist and the ways in which Watch OS and iOS work together. Interacting with the app on the Apple Watch makes it easier to ensure the standard and quality of connectivity and performance a user expects.
In what ways did your initial conceptualization of the application change throughout the development process?
Taptic Feedback - Specific to the Apple Watch, one thing that we learned very quickly was related to the handwashing timer. We thought we could develop a timer within the app that would tap the user’s wrist, using taptic feedback to let them know when their handwashing was done. However, that notification – tapping the wrist when the handwashing was done – was not something that was available to us in this first version of Watch OS.
Now, when the timer starts, the watch app lets the phone know that the timer has started. Then, the phone sends a notification back to the watch when the timer ends. Troubleshooting this challenge took some restructuring in terms of how we were developing the app, from a technical perspective. Hopefully the user doesn’t notice the difference at all, but it was one of the technical hoops we had to jump through in order to make the handwashing timer work the way that we expected it to work.
Also, there are bugs that we see in the wild, so to speak, that we weren’t able to see before, given the previous testing conditions. Now that we are able to test our app in the wild, we get a much better sense of what can go wrong, and we’ve already released a couple of updates to fix some of those things.
Loading Speed - Here’s an example of a minor detail that involves a creative spin. When our Sick Score was loading – when it was trying to talk to the iPhone – sometimes it would take longer than usual. It would say ‘Loading,’ like a typical loading screen. We took advantage of that moment to change the word to ‘Scanning.’ This gives the user the sense that we are actually scanning all the illnesses around them, rather than taking too long to load. It gives a sense that the app is actually doing something productive. This slight change has had a really positive effect on the user experience.
Could you share any statistics, metrics, or feedback that might demonstrate your application’s performance?
Not specifically, but I can say that being featured in the Apple Watch App Store impacted us positively by driving more awareness to our brand and increasing the amount of downloads for our iPhone App, which is, of course, connected to the Apple Watch app.
We have also seen that having the Sick Score feature increased our retention rates for both the watch and iPhone apps. Now that we’ve given people more ways to interact with our data and added more platforms, we are seeing people coming back to the app more often.
What lessons did you learn, and where are you going next?
The lesson we learned, especially relating to retention, additional downloads and active users, is that we want to make this available on Android Wear as well. We expect the same kind of positive impact on our retention rates and monthly active users.
What advice would you share with another organization that is seeking to develop a wearable application?
Make the app relevant to the platform itself. Don’t simply extend a preexisting idea to the new device. In other words, take full advantage of the new hardware that your software is running on and make it a unique value proposition.
Future of Wearables
What role do you see wearable technology playing in the next 6-12 months?
I think that there definitely is value to how wearable technology supplements the mobile phone experience, and I think that that is going to be how most developers end up taking advantage of the wearable platform.
Beyond that, from a hardware perspective, I foresee a lot more being done in terms of biometrics and quantified self. These devices will get slightly more sophisticated. I know that Samsung and Apple are looking at other ways to collect biometric information from the wearable, and this goal most likely will be on an accelerated path in the next six to 12 months, not only from a hardware perspective but also from a software perspective.
I think what’s also interesting, in our case specifically, is the metaphor or analogy of Sickweather’s Apple Watch app performing like a Geiger counter for illness. I think that there are going to be other forms of geo-located data that developers will realize can be applied to this same analogy: wearables may become data field detectors of sorts. In our case, it’s data collection for illnesses, but there may be other categories that emerge.