'Next-generation' app rewards providers of fitness data

'Next-generation internet' philosophy makes exercising pay off faster

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 5:22am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 5:22am

Five years' experience in the green sector has given Wang Zhongming, 33, a better understanding of how waste is fortune in the wrong place. Last year Wang, an environmental expert by training, decided to start unearthing the value of vast but untapped resources in the information-technology industry. Experimenting with an idea he calls the "next-generation internet", where users are paid for data they upload, Wang has founded a start-up with a social application where users are rewarded for fitness workouts with coupons for everything from coffee and theatre tickets to spa sessions and yoga classes.

It seems to be a rather abrupt jump from environmental protection to the internet industry. Why the change?

I worked for about five years in the environmental sector, first with a UN organisation and then with an e-waste recycling company in Japan. Before I quit last March, I spent a year in Tianjin working on a project to facilitate an industrial symbiosis for about the 2,000 factories in the city's Binhai New Area. The idea was to utilise resources better, as one factory's waste could be another's raw material. Such experience gave me a deep understanding of the notion that "waste is fortune in the wrong place". This idea actually applies to the internet industry, even though I did not have technical expertise. The smartphone app known as Bici tries to uncover the value of sports data by making it meaningful so that somebody wants to pay for it.

How does it work?

It encourages users to get healthier through very simple exercises such as long-distance walking. Users don't need to go to a gym, and they can achieve their targets on the way to work. Then they are rewarded when they finish each exercise. For instance, a free cup of coffee for 1,000 steps, or a spa [session] for 5,000 steps. These incentives offer a quicker reward than the health benefit of a workout, as it usually takes at least several months to see improvement and many people give up before seeing the effect, which has kept people from exercising.

But how do you decide the value of each walk, and who will pay for the reward?

Data of people's walking routes has inherent business value when enough data is collected. Such information could help businesses make marketing decisions. So businesses such as coffee shops and yoga centres are willing to pay for such information. That is the basic idea, and our reward providers agree with that, even though at the initial stage we don't have so many users yet. They're also willing to provide these rewards because the app is a good branding opportunity for them - linking their brands with the positive image of "health".

What's the difference from popular sports data apps?

There are some health apps that track and record users' sports data, such as drawing a map of one's running route, and recording the speed and distance. Then the users can share on social platforms. But their experiences stop there - that's how the Bici app is different. The exercise data, instead of being an end, is a starting point for various lifestyles made possible by the rewards. For me, a 3,000-step walk brings a theatre ticket; for you, it could mean cosmetics or a yoga course. And when friends are doing the exercises together, the rewards could be an entry point for further social activities.

How many users do you have now? If there is not enough data, why would the businesses, or the rewards providers, want to pay?

The app officially went online in late April, and we have about 10,000 users now. Currently I'm focusing on optimising the user experiences and hoping to attract as many as one million users by the end of this year, and expand from Beijing to other cities. What we're trying to do now is to give users the idea that they can actually get paid for the data they've generated. That's also my vision for the "next-generation internet", which could become the mainstream in five years or a decade.

Can you elaborate on that perception?

The internet has gone through two stages by now: at the beginning people pay for it, for instance we have to pay for antivirus software; then a few years later it becomes free. Internet companies are profiting from zillions of user-generated data, but users are not sharing the benefit. For instance, Taobao, the online shopping platform, has been selling users' behaviour data to shop owners so they can make better decisions on what to sell, yet users are not getting paid. This will change some time soon and the "next-generation" internet will pay people for generating data, because a huge quantity of data is generated thanks to the mobile phone and other wearable equipment such as wrist bands. These are the resources yet to be tapped - or the fortune in the wrong place. It may sound a bit crazy now, but I think it will become a trend.

Is it difficult to persuade investors with your vision?

The app is completely original and not a copycat of anything from Silicon Valley. We've already have some angel investors and some venture capitalists have also approached us. For me it's an exciting idea and it could leverage a large number of people if it works out. That's what is fascinating about the internet industry: You're dealing directly with people, you can make some real change.