MyFitnessPal and Owning Your Own Data

For nearly four years now, I have been an active user of an iPhone app called MyFitnessPal. It’s one of the hundreds of calorie/food tracking apps available on the iPhone. I was introduced to it by my sister and her husband, who were users of it at the time.

My usage of the app has become something of a muscle memory: as soon as I decide to eat something, I make sure I try to log it into the app before I take my first bite. I track my water consumption. It syncs with my Fitbit one, so I get updated stats on the number of calories I’ve burned throughout the day. It’s been a fantastic way for me to geek out about personal metrics, which was the original reason why I began using this and the Fitbit. It was never really about health or fitness for me, although that’s been a nice side effect. In fact, I lost more weight (about 40 pounds) before I began using these apps. But I think it’s safe to say that my usage of this tech has helped me keep that weight off, and has helped me steer my eating and exercise habits in a good direction.

Again, my primary goals for using MyFitnessPal was never really health- or fitness-centered. And I didn’t necessarily care so much that I was sending copious amounts of information to the free MyFitnessPal app, which was free to do essentially whatever the hell it wanted to with that data. That’s never been a concern of mine. As far as I was concerned, it was a fair trade: that got some information about my habits, I got a tool to analyze those habits.

More recently, though, the app has been undergoing some changes. First, they were bought out by Under Armour. Then the app started having ads throughout. Again, neither of these changes really bothered me. The acquisition could possibly mean more development and features. The ads made sense: it was free app, and the ads could help support its continued development.

Then I noticed the premium membership in the app. I was enticed by this, seeing as I’ve used the app every single day for the last 1,430 days straight. I would happily consider paying to help support this tool that I’ve used for so long and through which I have gained a better understanding of my health.

But last week, MyFitnessPal announced a premium only feature that rubbed me the wrong way: users who paid the subscription fee were now able to export their raw user data.

Being a relatively new convert to the IndieWeb movement, I feel this is wrong. Don’t misunderstand me: I think it’s great that MyFitnessPal now offers this option to users. It’s really overdue. What bothers me is that it’s locked in behind the premium option. Why should I have to pay MyFitnessPal a fee just to get access to the data I’ve worked to put into the app?

So right now I’m at a crossroads. Do I continue using an app that’s going to essentially hold me data for a ransom? Do I switch over to logging all of my data in Fitbit’s suite of products? Again, I’m putting all that information in a third party’s control, but at least Fitbit allows for some retrieval of my data via their API.

What would be really nice is if someone who is obsessed with this kind of personal metric data and the IndieWeb movement to come along and develop open source tools that can help people track this sort of information without reliance on these third parties who will look to monetize our personal information off of the users who are putting that data into the tools. I’m really not sure where to go from here.