What I did over my summer vacation

Or how mobile, social, cloud computing and the internet of things probably saved my life


Recently, at IBM Impact 2013, Kyle Brown agreed to present an Ignite Talk on a topic of his choice. If you've never seen one, Ignite Talks are fast-paced events, co-sponsored by O'Reilly Media®, in which speakers are challenged to speak for five minutes on a topic about which they're passionate. Speakers are required to have 20 slides, which automatically advance every 20 seconds. The talks are intended to "ignite" or inspire the audience on topic the speaker is passionate about.

It's a challenging format, but Kyle knew he had a good story to tell - one that was quite literally near and dear to his heart. It's a compelling story that illustrates how key technologies helped change, and maybe even save, his life, and he was excited to share it. Take a look at the video and hear Kyle's story, or read the story below, which serves as a slightly augmented transcript of the video.

Ignite Talk: What I did over my summer vacation

Kyle is a Distinguished Engineer with IBM Software Services for WebSphere, specializing in SOA and Emerging Technologies. He provides consulting services, education, and mentoring on SOA, object-oriented topics and J2EE technologies to Fortune 500 clients. He is a co-author of Enterprise Java Programming with IBM WebSphere and Persistence in the Enterprise. Kyle is also an IBM Master Inventor, and a frequent speaker on SOA, Enterprise Java, OO design, and design patterns.

A story of transformation

Hi, I'm Kyle Brown and I'm a Distinguished Engineer with IBM Software Services and Support for WebSphere. My talk is on “What I did over my summer vacation” or how mobile, social, cloud computing and the internet of things probably saved my life. My story begins last July, when my son and I took a trip to Illinois for a family reunion. This was meant to be just a quick visit of a few days to attend my aunt and uncle's 40th wedding anniversary, relax, see a few old friends, and let my son get to know his cousins a bit better. However, that all quickly changed into something much scarier and more alarming.

When I got off the plane in St. Louis, I noticed that I had some problems with seeing things at the airport. However, when I got into the rental car and drove over the bridge into Illinois, this is what I had expected to see, just as I had seen this sign so many times before. (Slide showing sign saying "Welcome to Illinois, Land of Lincoln.) However, this wasn't what I saw at all. Instead what I saw was something much closer to this. (Slide showing a very blurry sign!)

Something had gone seriously wrong with my vision. The problems that I had begun to have at the airport were progressively getting worse. Something bad was going on, so as soon as I could when I arrived where the reunion was to be held, I made an appointment with an optometrist. The optometrist hooked me up to his machines and compared my vision to my existing prescription. What had happened was that my distance vision had drastically changed – over two full diopters, or more than it had changed over the past ten years – all in 24 hours! He told me that otherwise my eyes looked fine, but that I needed to see my family doctor as soon as possible once I returned from my vacation.

When I did that, and my family doctor ran some tests, I got the shock of my life. The reason my eyesight had changed so much is that I had become diabetic. This was a serious red flag for me – my mother had died of heart problems resulting from complications from diabetes in her 60's.

My doctor told me I had to lose 25 pounds, and quickly, or go on medication to control my blood sugar. Given that I had just lost my two older brothers to other health issues in the past few years, I knew I had to change something about my lifestyle drastically.

So just like any other programmer in his 40's I did the very first thing that came to mind – I looked to see what my social network was doing. After rejecting some solutions like bariatric surgery, I found some postings from one of my friends, Skyler, who had recently lost a lot of weight using a device called a Fitbit®, which automatically posted to Facebook as he started exercising.

Fitbit is an amazing little device – I call it a pedometer on steroids! It contains a little three-axis accelerometer and a processor chip and EL display, and connects wirelessly to either your smartphone or your computer using Bluetooth® technology. It takes the data from the accelerometer and determines from that information the type and intensity of the exercise you are doing. It then takes that information and displays how many steps you've taken and how many calories you've burned as a result, both on a web site and a mobile application. It also tells you how many calories you have left to consume that day based on how much weight you want to lose in a week. It then gamefies the process by ranking you against your friends.

For me, it was easy - I started walking. I soon upped my daily walking goal to 10,000 steps a day, then 12,000 and 12,500 and now 12,750. Meanwhile Fitbit keeps upping my daily calorie expenditure goal as I become more fit as a result. But it wasn't only exercise I had to add – I had to change my diet, too.

The first thing to go was my five-a-day Mountain Dew habit. That alone was adding almost 1500 calories a day to my diet – more than I actually consume in an entire day on some days now! I just switched to diet soda and dropped adding sugar to my coffee and overcame one major hurdle.

The other thing I had to do was change what I ate - mostly by adding fruits and vegetables. Michael Pollan sums up his diet advice as "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." He defines food as "anything your grandmother would have recognized as food growing up," which eliminates most processed foods that are high in calories and low in nutrition. Reducing the processed foods and replacing them with more natural foods was another fairly easy accommodation given my love of cooking.

To fill in the other half of the calorie burning/calorie intake equation, I began to use a mobile application and web site from Livestrong™.com to track my calorie intake. This web site has a huge database of foods that you can use to find how many calories you're consuming in a day and what your nutritional breakdown is. Most foods I eat are found directly in the database and can be found with just a quick text search.

My goal was simple: keep the calorie intake number below the calorie expenditure number. I've now lost over 47 pounds between July of 2012 and March of 2013, without having to change much more about my lifestyle than just these two things, the change has been dramatic. I've dropped two full clothing sizes since last July – expensive but worth it!

The major goal I was after - dropping my blood sugar - happened quickly. Both my blood glucose level and my A1C hemoglobin levels dropped down to normal with a couple of months. As an unexpected bonus, my blood pressure and cholesterol numbers started dropping dramatically too. As a result, I was able to drop one of my two blood pressure medications, and my cholesterol medication. I'm now taking fewer medications than I have at any time since I was thirty.

But that's not the only place that the data has proven useful. I quickly found that I could link my Fitbit account to the Microsoft Health Vault, among others. My doctor sends updates to me through the Labcorp cloud API that also goes into my Microsoft Health Vault account, where I can compare my exercise and weight numbers with my lab test results.

So for me, this has tied it all together. All of this positive change came about by giving me access to the right data when I needed it and in a form that I could use. My social network was able to help me find the right products to purchase to help me make better decisions, and to motivate me to keep up the exercise and weight loss once it began. These cloud and mobile applications came together in one seamless story showing the impact of big data. And this kind of application that you can build with mobile, social and cloud computing is the same kind of application that can have this type of effect for your customers as well.


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