By Jane Sarasohn-Kahn

First Posted at Health Populi on 3/12/2013

Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, Host of Health Populi

Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, Host of Health Populi

The latest in SoLoMo (Social, Local, Mobile) Health is a gamified tool coupled with a hardware kiosk, known as higi.

The brainchild of Michael Ferro, a successful dotcom entrepreneur who now owns the Chicago Sun-Times, higi’s mission is to help people – particularly younger peeps – to take better care of themselves by scoring points and, as a result, social connections.

Higi’s an African word for origin, so the health tool has some aspects relating to being in a tribe — a kind of health tribe. It also has a fun sound to it, Ferro noted, which sets the vibe for the branding.

I sat down for a chat with Michael and higi’s creative director, the popular hip hop singer Lupe Fiasco, at South-by-Southwest in Austin, to hear the backstory on higi and why Lupe is involved in the project.

Ferro was inspired to do a tech start-up in health after a conversation with Todd Park, once Chief Technology Officer at the Department of Health and Human Services and now CTO in the Obama White House. Ferro and Park talked about how to better engage consumers in health leveraging Internet platforms. Ferro looked into the market and found that so many start-ups were focused on health tracking devices, but the data generated by the sensor-laden technologies weren’t getting integrated or fed back to users in ways that sustained healthy behaviors over time.

Ferro’s development team put together higi, a tool that integrates self-tracking, social sharing, and gamification on one consumer-friendly dashboard. Engineers have used the APIs from popularly-used self-tracking devices (e.g., Nike+ Fuelband, Fitbit, BodyMedia, Withings scale, and others) and enable self-generated personal health data to come onto the higi platform, allowing users to calculate their higi score and compare with friends and other higi users. Those people who get to a score of 900 or more join the elite “900 Club.” This Club was Lupe’s idea, driven by his observation that many of his peers would be more apt to participate in higi if there was some sort of special group that recognized and rewarded their accomplishment.

The concept of “score” is two-fold. First, score can be used as a noun in terms of aggregating one’s physical activity, socializing personal health information, and tracking physical improvements (e.g., blood pressure, weight, other metrics) which together contribute to the higi score. Alternatively, “score” can be used as the noun “to score,” hinting at gaining social attention from and traction with someone. Think of it as akin to a health Klout score, Ferro said. Higi aims to make living well simple, fun and rewarding — without ever using the word, “health.”

Higi is based on both the principles of the Hawthorne Effect and the Halo Effect, Ferro described. The former results in people’s behavior improving when they’re being watched; the latter drives the positive outcome that happens when we share our experiences, as happens with the Weight Watcher’s social network. “The more you share and communicate” your personal health information, Ferro explained, “the more points the user earns in the community component of the higi score.”

Higi’s launch at the 2013 SXSW was a just-in-time event; the team got the app in place just before SXSW launched. However, the higi kiosks for self-measurement are already in a thousand retail locations including grocery stores and pharmacies: namely, many Giant and Publix food stores, and some CVS pharmacies, as of mid-March 2013.

“We want to work with everybody,” Ferro said, ecumenically. “We want everybody to use our platform.” I asked about higi’s similarities with the SoloHealth kiosk, now available in Walmart and Sam’s Club stores. Ferro noted that SoloHealth has started with vision and is moving into other health measures and is not yet gathering data from users’ self-tracking devices. He hopes that SoloHealth could someday link with higi’s platform.

For the time being, higi is not selling advertising or offering coupons, except for accepting banner ads from local health providers (say, hospital systems in peoples’ local communities).

To Ferro, success will look like 10,000 higi kiosks in the marketplace by 2014, and 100,000 by 2016, with millions of users.

One of the secrets in the higi sauce would be Lupe Fiasco. With his music, Ferro explained, “Lupe is trying improve people and [motivate] the community to do the right thing. He is from Chicago and this company is in Chicago,” Ferro went on.

Lupe believes that, “You can make a change right now and become a better you.” He has taken this philosophy and brought it to life with a different angle than Ferro or the development team. Lupe is “playing a big influence on how we will design things in the future,” Ferro predicted.

Lupe himself told me that higi is, “Just like climbing a mountain in real life, facing physical obstacles. But you have to check in and stay engaged in order to reach your peak,” extending the mountain-metaphor.

Lupe’s father passed away from diabetes at the young age of 54, so the father’s son has a very personal appreciation for health risk factors like hypertension and poor nutrition habits. He has “honest motivation” for the project, he said. “I honestly wanted to challenge myself in a new realm of business with some major heavyweight players who gave me mentorship and blessings and support,” Lupe explained. Pre-higi, Ferro has worked with Lupe as the singer has been writing an op-ed column for Ferro’s newspaper, so extending the creative role to Lupe grows their relationship.

“Being part of a business and on the cutting edge of health and technology applications and social media is a perfect fit for me to take my creative energies and add value,” Lupe told me.

I asked him what his own social circle thought of his involvement with higi. “I made my whole entourage get onto higi,” Lupe asserted. “It was interesting to see guys who hadn’t seen their vitals since they’d gone to the doctor for a checkup. Their initial shock was, ‘I thought I was doing better than that’,” Lupe reported. “Then you see the twinkle in the eye of my homies,” he smiled.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: So much of health technology is devoted to the sick, who tend to be older health citizens.

Younger people tend to have close-in time horizons, with health “care” not so much in their radar. Higi doesn’t say “health” at all – it says, “score,” be social, be mindful of food and physical activity and keep track of yourself. And if you’re really consistent making good choices, you can join the 900 Club.

Another take on bolstering young peoples’ health is the Feel Rich project from Quincy Jones III (aka QD3) and Shawn Ullman, who were also at SXSW13 and whom I profiled in Health Populi here). Feel Rich is urban youth focused and leverages media and pop stars to be health-ful role models for their fans. Fat Joe, Slim Thug, Blair Underwood, and others share personal lifestyle approaches to health. Shawn and Quincy are promoting health as wealth, noting that many of the young people they’re addressing will spend a small fortune on a new pair of sneakers but won’t buy healthy food because it seems too expensive. But QD3 points out that his mother, the model Ulla Andersson (aka Ulla Jones), was a vegetarian who compelled her kids to eat healthy food.

In both higi and Feel Rich, we see technology meeting up with people (especially young people) where they live, informed by successful young peers who want to take health to real health citizens in real neighborhoods. I’m hopeful that these programs will inspire and motivate health engagement to help young people prevent the onset of chronic conditions way too soon in their lives — and find joy and fun along their health journeys.

An important outcome of my meeting with higi came out of the Halo Effect: my teenage daughter now thinks I’m the coolest mom with the coolest job. I don’t know about being a cool mom, but I know I love my job.