Toolmaker Talk: Vaibhav Bhandari (Enabling Programmable Self with HealthVault)

April 25, 2012

A few years ago, there was a lot of hoopla about PHRs (Personal Health Records), and the idea that all of one’s health records would be easily accessible in one place. Things haven’t turned out as rosy, and one major player, Google Health, shut down. However, Microsoft continues to persevere with its version, HealthVault, and Vaibhav Bhandari has written a book explaining how self-trackers can take advantage. Is a book a “tool”?! Surely a book that helps you use a tool qualifies for this series.

Q: How do you summarize Enabling Programmable Self with HealthVault? What is it about?

Bhandari: Enabling Programmable Self with HealthVault is a concise book explaining how Microsoft HealthVault can be used for self-tracking and behavior change. It shows how users can enable automatic updates from well-known fitness devices like Fitbit; how they can collect and analyze their health data; and how application developers can help them with mobile or web-based applications.

The book appeals to a broad set of readers from novice health hackers to professional programmers. It walks the reader through showing how they can easily download information from HealthVault in spreadsheets and track and visualize disparate health data to show interesting health trends about themselves. It outlines the details of the powerful data ecosystem of HealthVault and then shows how to write mobile and web applications using HealthVault APIs.

Microsoft HealthVault is the most prominent example of a personally controlled health record. With its open API, flexibility and connections with multiple health care providers and health & fitness devices, it gives people interested in monitoring their own health an unprecedented opportunity to do their own research on their own data. The other part of the title, “Programmable Self” is a term coined by Fred Trotter, and refers to a combination of Quantified Self and Motivational Hacks.

Q: What’s the back story? What led to it?

Bhandari: For the past three and a half years, I had been part of the HealthVault engineering team. I guided partners and developers building HealthVault applications, and curated an open source community around HealthVault and its client libraries. For this I created a lot of content and code examples, and it became clear that a book explaining HealthVault and its client libraries would be helpful to many.

Over the same time period Quantified Self, Personal Informatics and Motivational Hacks have seen an uptrend. During high-school and college I used to track a lot of factors like time, work-outs, and expenses on a daily basis.  Through collaborators and colleagues like Fred Trotter I recently got reintroduced to self-tracking. I learned to appreciate the value of tracking and make it more meaningful by associating goals and self experiments and evaluating it in a qualitative context.

I realized these trends very squarely represent the usage scenarios for HealthVault. HealthVault is a great open health platform to aggregate self-quantification data from health & fitness devices and from connected medical institutions via standards like CCD & Blue Button. It does have limitations. There is minimal graphing and statistical capability; however one can export data and use a spreadsheet. And while it has a good input editor for standard data formats, for anything else you must use the programming interface or a spreadsheet.

Q: What impact has your book and HealthVault had for self-trackers? What have you heard from readers and users?

Bhandari: The book was released about a month ago. The feedback I have received in that short time has been quite varied.

One reader noticed a strange correlation between dental visits (data entered automatically through his healthcare provider) and sleep cycle disruption (data entered automatically through Fitbit). Understanding that sleeplessness was caused by anxiety about his frequent dental visits allowed him to curtail the anxiety. Another reader tracking weight, using the Withings scale, and carbohydrate intake and alcohol consumption spotted correlations that has helped him manage his diet to be competitive in national and international triathlons.

In last few weeks I have also received emails from readers who found the book to be a great aid in helping to design clinical trial experiments for graduate research.

Q: What makes the book different, sets it apart?

Bhandari: Currently, Enabling Programmable Self with HealthVault is the only technical book covering Microsoft HealthVault.

Q: What are you doing next? How are you advancing these ideas?

Bhandari: I’m encouraging readers to contribute sharable spreadsheets on the companion website of the book, One common denominator among health hackers is use of spreadsheets, be it Google spreadsheet or Microsoft Excel. The kind of data being tracked is of long tail nature and no software does a really good job of presenting an interface which can handle and visualize it. Spreadsheets are a useful tool to extend and visualize the varied data involved. Through, I want readers to be able to share their Health tracking experiences and perhaps create an Open-Source ecosystem of spreadsheets where members of the community can start with a new tracking methodology easily and see some sample data and visualizations of what has worked or not worked for the community members.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say?

Bhandari: Self-quantifiers are mavens of personal informatics, justifying and promoting citizen empowerment with their Healthcare data. We need to promote communities and tools which put the patient in control of their healthcare. Hopefully, Enabling Programmable Self with HealthVault will add a drop to to the ocean by spreading ideas and tools for toolmakers to empower and motivate citizens to be more involved in their day to day health.

Product: Enabling Programmable Self with HealthVault
Price: $14.99

This is the 14th post in the “Toolmaker Talks” series. The QS blog features intrepid self-quantifiers and their stories: what did they do? how did they do it? and what have they learned?  In Toolmaker Talks we hear from QS enablers, those observing this QS activity and developing self-quantifying tools: what needs have they observed? what tools have they developed in response? and what have they learned from users’ experiences? If you are a “toolmaker” and want to participate in this series, contact Rajiv Mehta at

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