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Japan data-driven health programs on the rise amid competition fears from US big tech


TOKYO -- The wealth of data available from rich seams of information including the internet and our daily lives has given rise to the attention-grabbing "data economy." But how will all of this information change our lives, and does Japan stand a chance of benefitting from it against the all-conquering might of U.S. big tech firms?

At the Uchiriha Fukaya Nakasendo branch care and rehabilitation center in Fukaya, Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, a group of elderly citizens are stretching their arms and legs while looking at the screen on a tablet. They are wearing bands, developed by Tokyo-based start-up Moff, on their arms and legs to measure their activity. On the screen there is not just a model of the stretches they are expected to do, but also real-time information such as the angle they have moved their arms and legs at, helping them to internalize the correct movements. One participant smiles and says, "It's fun because you can understand for yourself how much you really moved."

With prior agreement via care centers, Moff collects the data produced from the sessions. The analysis of activities including exercises connected to improving physical function is helping the company to develop more effective fitness programs. Currently, the program has been implemented at around 300 care facilities.

The company has also trialed a new program at a nursing home in Tokyo at the end of March this year. Using data collected up to now studied by artificial intelligence (AI), it automatically provides exercise proposals tailored to each individual, enabling physical rehabilitation to be carried out by a small number of staff. Along with easing staff shortages issues, the data collected from the test can be used to improve the AI's accuracy, in an aim to create a cycle of benefit for the company. On the firm's ambitions, Akinori Takahagi, CEO of Moff, said "In the end we want to provide a service that can be used from home."

Advancements in wearable technology have caused a proliferation in related services. NeuroSpace Inc., also based in Tokyo, is trying to improve rest quality for the sleep deprived using equipment placed under a mattress or bed pad to collect "sleep data," such as the user's heart rate. The service, launched in March 2019, then offers advice and notifications based on the information, such as "Today's sleep was light," and "You'll feel drowsy at 3 p.m., so take a nap at around 1 p.m." Company's CEO Takanori Kobayashi says "The more data it collects the more accurate the advice is."

A group of elderly people perform arm exercises while wearing activity measuring bands and receiving feedback from a tablet, seen in the foreground, in Fukaya, Saitama Prefecture, in March 2019. (Mainichi/Daisuke Oka)

The National Center for Global Health and Medicine is analyzing degrees of improvement in the condition of some 1,159 patients with mild cases of diabetes. They wore devices that measured their heart rate, blood pressure, body weight and the amount of exercise they do to then receive advice on fitness and diet from a smartphone app. The study investigates rates of improvement between those who appear to have followed its recommendations and those that haven't. From this fiscal year, the government intends to expand the scheme to patients suffering from other ailments, in a move it hopes will help to improve the Japanese health industry's competitive edge.

However, GAFA -- U.S. tech giants Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon -- are also extending their tentacles into the health service industry. Apple collects data on the physical state of its customers around the world through the tracking information on its Apple Watch series. The major firms are looking at data collection in Japan with intense interest. Many figures connected to GAFA have decided this country's people are so earnest they'll engage thoroughly in measuring and compiling their information.

Then there's the scramble for "real data," collected from our daily lives, which is in the process of turning into a heated competition. As it becomes standard for devices including cars, home electronics and even factory machinery to be online and connected to the "Internet of Things" (IOT), the volume of real data is certain to increase.

According to provisional calculations by consultancy firm Accenture, real data is set to be worth around $14.2 trillion (about 1,500 trillion yen) in 2030, with the scale of Japan's market for it projected to be third in the world, behind China in second and the U.S. at the top.

Akiko Kamei, a researcher at the Daiwa Institute of Research Group, struck an ominous tone on the development, "Competition among companies for real data has already begun, all the more because the product is expected to see growth. For Japan, it's not going to be an easy fight."

(Japanese original by Daisuke Oka, Special Reports Group)

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