Robert Kneschke -

Fighting fit: The ODI on courting startups to use open data to get the UK moving

The Open Data Institute is aiming to change the fact that millions of people in the UK are inactive, and is using open data and startups to help engage citizens to exercise.

With around 18 million people in the UK classed as living inactive, sedentary lifestyles, the Open Data Institute (ODI) is on a mission to get more of the population moving and keeping fit.

To this end, the organisation is encouraging the startup community to harness the power of open data to create products and services that could encourage more people to make working out a more regular part of their everyday routine through its OpenActive initiative.

ODI’s head of sector programme, Chris Pett, said at its Not So Sporty Sports Day event on 16 August 2018 that OpenActive is “about finding a way to make it easy for people to discover and book activities that they want to take part in and get a habit of regular exercise in their lives”.

The ODI is partnering with Sport England and co-working space provider Huckletree on the startup accelerator portion of the project, to provide desk space, mentoring and advice to 10 of the participating startups until November 2018.

They will also receive advice on marketing and legal matters, as well as access to a network of investors, thanks to the other partners in the programme such as Innovate UK and entrepreneur supporter Octopus Ventures.

Furthermore, the startups can use ODI’s open data to access information about local exercise opportunities, which they can potentially use to create their offerings.

“[The accelerator] is supporting startups through a process of learning about what the real needs for both users in the market and for business opportunity are, and what the real needs out there are,” added Pett.

“How can they uncover those needs and create products and services that really match them and will create a sustainable business for them, but are also going to get people to be more active?”

This, in turn, should pave the way for the participating startups to develop their initial product ideas even further.

“This is helping the startups see a way from their initial concept, through testing and iterating that idea, meeting potential suppliers of the data that they need to build their products on, figuring out how to get the data quality and the availability of that data up,” he said.

“And in finding out what is an investable proposition at the other side – so, at the end of the process, they will be able to present to the market.”   

Getting the UK active

Sport England’s strategic lead for data and market innovation, Allison Savic, told Computer Weekly after the accelerator’s launch in May that time pressures and social barriers are key reasons for inactivity.

“A lot of people will first tell you about things like time, money and being able to fit it into their life. But then there are a lot of emotional barriers as well. The emotional barrier that a lot of women have is the fear of judgement to being active,” she said.

“And it’s not just women. Men have similar barriers in terms of going into a gym, it can be quite a daunting experience.”

At the Open Active event, Alex Stanley, founder and CEO of one of the accelerator’s startups, Onigo, highlighted lack of self-belief and boredom as other potential issues.

Onigo tries to address this by offering an augmented reality-based web app, where users walk around either Hyde Park or Battersea Park and complete a mind-testing game under timed conditions.

Stanley said the company wanted to build a game that “doesn’t take too long, is cost effective and is fundamentally built around something being inherently fun and social”, therefore removing the boredom issue.

“We’re also specifically targeting people who are not that active and pitching it, making sure that we have the levels right to engage people who are not necessarily that confident in exercising,” he said.  

“The games are not just about moving, they’re also about using your brain as well, [so] it relies on people with different skills. We are looking to open up to a wider market of people who might be put off by traditional exercise like gym classes or sports teams.”

The accelerator has connected Onigo with other companies in the Huckletree work space, and all the programme participants “are pointing in the same direction in terms of trying to get people physically active in different kinds of ways”.

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The open data element of the programme is also helping Stanley’s startup to pick out trends relating to how active people are.

“[The open data] could be, for example, when people are having classes. We also see a huge benefit in opening up our own data, letting people be aware of when Onigo games are going on. It is great to share that. but it’s also a good opportunity for more people to find out about our games.” 

Carron Manning, co-founder of fellow OpenActive startup, iPrescribe Exercise, said urbanisation, combined with the rise of technology, has also contributed towards inactivity becoming more pervasive within society.

“Urbanisation about 50 years ago has coincided with this massive increase in chronic disease. It’s becoming worse, we’ve become very static and sedentary with our work with our computers and laptops. We’re fuelling this inactivity crisis,” she said. 

“We’re expecting levels of diabetes and heart disease to rise even further. Chronic diseases account for about 70% of the NHS’ annual spend at the moment, so the market is massive and we need to do something about it, in a scalable way.” 

There are misconceptions about how much exercise people need to be considered active, she added, and this is an area the fitness industry needs to address.

“Exercise intensity does not need to be high to get the most benefit. The fitness industry promotes this image that you have to go to the gym and you have to sweat and run, and that is not the case,” she said, as lower-impact activities such as walking could also bring great benefits to people.

“To get the health protective benefits that we need to protect people from heart disease or diabetes, we don’t have to work so hard,” she added. 

Closing the gap between health and fitness

The iPrescribe Exercise NHS app analyses the heart rate and fitness levels of people with chronic diseases and prescribes a personalised fitness programme, in the same way a doctor might prescribe medication.

It covers 20 diseases from heart problems to cancer, depression and high blood pressure, with Manning’s hope being that the company will becoming something of a “middle man” between the NHS and the fitness industry.

The organisation is currently working on the next iteration of the app, which will be cloud-based and provide doctors with real-time information about their patients’ health and physical activity levels, while the open data component will show them where they are exercising.

“The OpenActive data really increases the choice of exercise to help out users. As physiotherapists, we find that people become more engaged with a physical activity programme if they are given appropriate guiding information, but are able to make their own decisions about how and when they complete their programme,” Manning said.

“We will be using the OpenActive data in a new cloud-based version of iPrescribe Exercise, which is currently being developed for the NHS.”

Anticipatory Health, which is the company behind another startup Train as One, is also researching the impact of exercise on health conditions.

“Train as One is a coach for runners of all abilities that employs artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and big data to help keep people fit, healthy and injury free while training for their goals,” said Train as One’s founder and CEO Sean Radford.

“You tell it your goals, your availability to train and then just run, safe in the knowledge that if life gets in the way, Train as One will get you back on track in the most efficient, effective and safe manner.”

The organisation is in the planning phases of a partnership with the University of Bath for a research programme called Running Buddies. The university’s research team will analyse an individual’s health through measurements such as blood pressure and will provide them with a three-month exercise guide.

“By participating in Running Buddies, [it is anticipated that] people can be encouraged to increase physical activity, fitness independence and be in a better position to tackle physical and/or mental health issues,” he said.

“The programme will be evaluated independently by a team based at the University of Bath, who will conduct a process evaluation and focus on the physical health and psychosocial outcomes for participants.”  

Using the accelerator’s open data component has benefited the company in a couple of ways by highlighting new running routes, said Train as One’s CTO David Brownlee, that they may not have encountered before.

“If we know where they can do that run, over suitable terrain, particularly if they’re doing a trail race, we can find something that’s a similar terrain and of the right distance for their training on that day and suggest it to them,” he said.

“So rather than them constantly running around the block of the house or something similar, we can give them better running opportunities. The ODI are in the process of standardising. There’s no standard yet, but they’re working towards one and we are now involved in that process.”

There is also scope, using open data, to widen the focus and user base of Train as One beyond the running community, said Brownlee.

“There’s some evidence that mixing in pilates, strength and conditioning and gym workouts can improve marathon and other running performance,” he said. “So if we want to suggest those to runners, we need to know where they are so we can use the open opportunity data to mix that into their existing running plans.”

OpenActive opens new exercise opportunities

The accelerator is one strand of OpenActive’s push for more UK exercise, and it has also announced a partnership to open up data on 100,000 activity opportunities per month for citizens.

The company is working with leisure centre operator Everyone Active, triathlon governing body British Triathlon and management software supplier Gladstone in the agreement. This will support both consumers and the startups in its accelerator, said Open Active programme manager, Richard Norris.

“We have broadened the range and choice of data about sport and fitness sessions available nationally. This will make it easier for startups to build scalable services and products that we know people want to help them get active,” he said.

“It also demonstrates that the initiative is moving beyond London, making it easier for people to find physical activity opportunities right across the country.”

Through its partnerships and its accelerator programme, OpenActive is aiming to address the physical inactivity in the UK in a way that is engaging and enjoyable for a range of ages.

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