Glow’s fertility app isn’t creepy. It’s modernizing something plenty of women already do

Before my husband and I decided we were ready to have kids, I never thought I’d have the discipline to track my temperature every morning or that I’d  actually want to talk about things like cervical mucus over a glass of wine. But now that I’m pregnant I know that once you’ve gotten it in your head that you want to have a baby, you’ll go to all kinds of lengths to make it happen – including sharing a record of your sex life with a smartphone app.

Over the past few months, PayPal co-founder Max Levchin has received a ton of attention for his fertility app Glow, which uses big data analytics to help women get pregnant.  Each day, the app asks women to enter a range of information — from their daily basal body temperature and the consistency of their cervical mucus to whether they had sex and, if so, in which position. By crunching each user’s data within the context of other user data and medical correlations, the app says it can predict the days when women are most fertile.

But on the heels of its launch this week, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo offers a dismissive critique, questioning the app’s value and essentially describing it as a creepy extension of the quantified-self “fad”:

“I’m skeptical that Glow can [improve health care], for one simple reason: It is astonishingly intrusive, asking you more about your life than you’d feel comfortable telling even a doctor.”

While he raises some valid points, I disagree that the app is just a too-nosy tool from a data-loving technophile. I love my privacy and I’m all for being skeptical about how companies use their customer’s data. I’m choosy about sharing my location data with smartphone apps and refuse to give Facebook much of my personal information. But if I were going through the trying-to-conceive phase again, I’d happily share my health and fertility data with Glow — not because it’s tied to the latest cool tech trend, but because it’s a more sophisticated and potentially more productive extension of what my doctor suggested and what natural family planning practitioners have recommended for decades.

Women already self-track on paper and in their heads

The tech world may just be embracing quantified-self activities in a big way now (and perhaps some of the behaviors we currently associate with it will indeed turn out to be fads). But for women who already track their menstrual cycles and ovulation, with paper charts or just in their heads, this isn’t new stuff. And if Glow (or Ovuline, another startup taking a similar big data approach) can make that process better, more power to them.  Granted, these data-driven apps want more details than the photocopied charts you’d get from the doctor or the standard ovulation apps that just give you a place to put information. But they want to one-up current tools by predicting when you’re going to ovulate next, not just confirming that you ovulated after the fact. And the more data they get, the more accurately they can do that.

Asking women to provide daily records of their sexual and health lives may seem creepy to Manjoo, but the questions Glow asks are just an expansion of what the doctor asks. And they’re not so unsimilar from questions in apps many women already seem quite happy to use. As of May, for example, 55,000 women had used Ovuline’s app to share more than 2.5 million data points since its September launch. And when you consider that women are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to conceive, giving an app daily updates of what happens in the bedroom seems like a much smaller sacrifice.

It’s true that providing details about sexual positions and orgasms may make some women (and, apparently, men) initially blush (Ovuline asks whether a couple had intercourse, but it doesn’t ask for specifics). But maybe Glow data could help address the myths and questions about whether sexual position affects conception, or how mood affects conception, or how plenty of other factors could improve a couple’s chance of conceiving.

Lots of questions, not a lot of good data

And that gets to one of the big issues in women’s health and fertility – there are a lot of questions, but there’s not a lot of great data to answer them. It will take time and, yes, it remains to be seen how actively couples will enter information, but I think it’s a positive thing that we’re getting new ways to explore these unknowns.

A big part of Manjoo’s argument against Glow is that most couples won’t need help from a data-hungry app to get pregnant, so “pee sticks” that tell women when they’re on the verge of ovulation are better:

“The vast majority of people who try to have children face no trouble at all; they’ll get pregnant without the app, sometimes without even meaning to.”

But while many women know almost exactly when they’re going to ovulate each month because they have clockwork-like cycles, his argument disregards the plenty of women who aren’t as lucky. According to estimates, 7.3 million people in the U.S., or one in eight couples, have trouble conceiving. For many of those women, the pee sticks Manjoo prefers aren’t a great option at all because their cycles are so irregular they wouldn’t know when to start using them.

That’s not to say that a fertility app doesn’t have its limitations. In many cases, the barrier to conception isn’t just timing, it’s blocked tubes or slow sperm or aging eggs. As women’s health writer Sarah Elizabeth Richards points out in a recent Quartz story about Glow, in some cases, fertility apps could be unhelpful if they lead women to believe that they have more control over this process than they actually do.

I also think it’s fair to question how diligently women will enter their information and how effective Levchin’s pregnancy “insurance” plan will actually be. Women might not have the time to be super compliant and most couples don’t expect infertility to affect them so may not immediately see the benefit of “mutual assistance” fund.

But I feel more confident knowing that Glow (and Ovuline, too) is working with experienced fertility experts to make sure its app is grounded in science and that its positioning doesn’t mislead women. And, selfishly, I hope it succeeds. When I’m ready to try for #2, maybe I’ll need help — and I’m going to want something better than a stick.