Should You Be Using a Period-Tracking App?


Demystifying womanhood with data.

Early this year, ads for menstrual underwear company Thinx were prevented from advertising on the New York subway by Outfront Media for being “inappropriate”. The decision was later reversed, but at the time, the ‘crime’ appeared to be the use of the word period (Outfront Media claimed it was for showing too much skin, but, critics pointed out, they seemed to have no problem allowing advertising for breast augmentation and other lingerie).

As researchers from Dartmouth Medical School and Procter and Gamble wrote in a joint paper in 2014, menstruation “is a topic that virtually all cultures are uncomfortable discussing at some level, and most girls are ill-informed.”

So it’s no surprise that women are commonly out of tune with their own bodies. When estimating the length of their cycle, nearly one out of every two women are out by four days or more, which has significant implications for those trying to fall pregnant and those who are trying the opposite.

Healthcare tech company Glow, a self-proclaimed advocate of “women’s reproductive rights”, is endeavouring to demystify womanhood with data. Max Levchin, a co-founder of PayPal, launched Glow in 2013 and the company now has offices in both San Francisco and Shanghai. Their family of apps includes pregnancy app Nurture, fertility app Glow and the youngest member of the family, Eve, which was born mid-2015.

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The Eve app sets itself apart as the anti-pregnancy app, designed for women who don’t wish to conceive – 40 per cent of users are actively trying to avoid pregnancy. Eve not only tracks periods, ovulation and sexual encounters, but, through a partnership with independent birth control support network Bedsider, the app hosts thorough information on women’s sexual health.

Jennifer Tye, VP of marketing and partnerships, says Eve’s goal from the start was to be a source of trusted information on women’s health topics that many consider taboo.

The Eve app sets itself apart as the anti-pregnancy app, designed for women who don’t wish to conceive.

“Sufficient data can solve some of the hardest problems out there, and one category with hard problems is health. Glow is part of a movement shedding more light on women’s reproductive health information. We wanted to build an app just for where women manage their sex life, their cycle and their health (plus ask all those WTF questions you’re afraid to ask!)

“With a strong education component, Eve provides women with knowledge about their sexual health, leading to a better sense of self, better decision making, and fewer unplanned pregnancies.”

The app was initially launched as Ruby but when it was discovered that a rival tech company had done a stealth trademark application for the same name, it was quickly renamed Eve.

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“As a company we looked into our options and we decided quickly on how to move on,” says Jennifer. “We love Eve as a name. We love the fact that Eve has multiple connotations. It works well with the voice of our app.”

And she’s not kidding. Aside from the option to log your sexcapades, there’s also the ability to rate them – something Jennifer believes can be “hugely empowering”.

The company has not released download or community numbers, but the Glow app claimed to have helped to facilitate more than 150,000 pregnancies all over the world.

“It’s 40 per cent more effective in helping couples conceive than if they weren’t using the app. That same [data] capability drives Eve. We can develop new learnings such as women having different reactions to the same birth control,” says Jennifer of the app’s community chats.

“Wouldn’t it be great to know if this is a side effect? There are so many questions that haven’t been fully answered yet and we think with sufficient data we will be able to do that.”

When it comes to notifying users when PMT may set in, Glow ditches clichés and heads back to its data-driven core.

“We say, let’s look at the data. We take a scientifically-based approach instead of stereotypes. We know hormonal levels fluctuate, so let’s track [those symptoms] and quantify them at the individual level. Some women may feel more emotional; others may not. At least let’s validate that and have a place to talk about it.

“What we are trying to do is bring these conversations to the forefront; remove some of that shame or embarrassment around talking about your period. Part of that awareness is by tracking and logging those patterns for yourself.”

Launching with offices in both San Francisco and Shanghai, Glow has had an international perspective from day one (Eve recently became available in Spanish, Portuguese and Mandarin). This means, however, that the 30 staff have to “make extra effort” to communicate really well across time zones and cultures.

“We have weekly all-hands meetings that we conduct over video conference and are in constant contact and chatter via programs such as Slack, Skype, Google products (Drive, Calendar, Hangout), and we also make it a point to see each other in person as often as possible, with teams visiting each other’s offices at least twice a year,” says Jennifer.

They have extended their international context by partnering with Huru International, which provides locally-made feminine hygiene supplies to women in developing countries – especially where it’s common for girls to have their education interrupted due to lack of sanitary products.

“In some cultures, menstruating women are exiled. They are [considered] dirty. We feel very strongly about empowering women and cultures to take a more knowledgeable stance on that.”

From conducting their own studies to analysing the data they glean from their users (the data is anonymised, uses SSL for encryption and will never be sold to a third party), Glow has a large amount of women’s health information at its fingertips, which is being used for more than just improving apps.

In 2014 the company presented its first study at the annual conference of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine on the correlation between women’s cycles and the phases of the moon. Until then, previous studies on the topic contained a few hundred women. Glow had anonymous and encrypted data from more than 38,000.

“We constantly get feedback from our users on how excited they are to be a part of the largest study ever conducted on women’s health. There hasn’t been a large-scale study conducted in over 50 years (which is crazy!) and there’s still so much to learn.

“The finding was that women are more likely to start their period right after the start of a new moon and less likely around a full moon, which is really interesting.

It’s studies like this that show that even though our knowledge of women’s bodies increases, they are still as incredible and mysterious as ever.

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