Algorithmic Self-Tracking for Health: User Perspectives on Risk Awareness and Coping Strategies

Open Access Journal | ISSN: 2183-2439

Article | Open Access

Algorithmic Self-Tracking for Health: User Perspectives on Risk Awareness and Coping Strategies


  • Noemi Festic Department of Communication and Media Research, University of Zurich, Switzerland
  • Michael Latzer Department of Communication and Media Research, University of Zurich, Switzerland
  • Svetlana Smirnova Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science, UK


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Abstract:  Self-tracking with wearable devices and mobile applications is a popular practice that relies on automated data collection and algorithm-driven analytics. Initially designed as a tool for personal use, a variety of public and corporate actors such as commercial organizations and insurance companies now make use of self-tracking data. Associated social risks such as privacy violations or measurement inaccuracies have been theoretically derived, although empirical evidence remains sparse. This article conceptualizes self-tracking as algorithmic-selection applications and empirically examines users’ risk awareness related to self-tracking applications as well as coping strategies as an option to deal with these risks. It draws on representative survey data collected in Switzerland. The results reveal that Swiss self-trackers’ awareness of risks related to the applications they use is generally low and only a small number of those who self-track apply coping strategies. We further find only a weak association between risk awareness and the application of coping strategies. This points to a cost-benefit calculation when deciding how to respond to perceived risks, a behavior explained as a privacy calculus in extant literature. The widespread willingness to pass on personal data to insurance companies despite associated risks provides further evidence for this interpretation. The conclusions—made even more pertinent by the potential of wearables’ track-and-trace systems and state-level health provision—raise questions about technical safeguarding, data and health literacies, and governance mechanisms that might be necessary considering the further popularization of self-tracking for health.

Keywords:  algorithmic selection; coping strategies; mHealth; risk awareness; self-tracking apps; self-quantification; societal risks; user perception; wearables

Published:   18 November 2021


DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/mac.v9i4.4162


© Noemi Festic, Michael Latzer, Svetlana Smirnova. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.