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How Will Personal-Feedback Loops Affect the Hispanic Population?

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Alicia Morga wants to know how you're feeling.

The founder and CEO of Refleta.com isn't just making small talk. Her company's iPhone app, gottaFeeling, prompts users to track their emotions, which they can share via social networks.

However, gottaFeeling is more than some narcissistic toy that panders to our national obsession with sharing every thought with our virtual friends. The app has a purpose, which is to help people recognize their unconscious habits. It utilizes an old idea that technology has revitalized and that many experts believe is "a profoundly effective tool for changing behavior."

The tool in question is the personal-feedback loop, and while the concept is not the domain of any one ethnicity or race, it has potentially enormous consequences for the Latino community.

In essence, personal-feedback loops give people contextualized information about their actions, often in real time. An example is a baseball player who studies tape of his swing, makes adjustments, studies the tape of his new swing, makes more adjustments, and so on, forming a loop. The theory is that once individuals see the hidden patterns in their behaviors, they will be better prepared to do something about it.

Feedback loops, whether personal or societal, have always been present in American culture. Indeed, Dr. Angelica Perez-Litwin, a psychologist, says that Americans are currently "engaging in what could be termed a 'collective, social-feedback loop' -- bouncing and reacting to information that is relevant to our lives and current trends. And it is via this social-feedback loop that both individuals and communities are achieving powerful changes and goals."

The Hispanic community has long been responsive to societal-feedback loops. For example, a Northwestern University study theorized that even though overt discrimination has been outlawed, persistent "institutional" feedback loops maintain and reproduce early advantages for white people that were established, making socioeconomic progress for Latinos more difficult.

But it is the personal-feedback loop, rather than the cultural version, that has the most potential to help Latinos make dramatic changes today. The reason, as it is for so many aspects of our lives, is technology.

This may seem odd, as Hispanics have traditionally lagged behind other ethnic groups when it comes to the adoption of technology. But that is changing, as Latinos have recently been shown to be over-indexing in social media technology adaption.

For example, Latinos are now more likely than other groups to use the advanced functions on their smart phones. This is undoubtedly because Hispanics are younger (and one assumes, much hipper) than the general population. As such, Hispanics may be quite receptive to apps like Morga's gottaFeeling, or to other technologies that employ personal-feedback loops.

Morga understands this, which is why her app is available in both English and Spanish. Regardless of which language users employ, gottaFeeling fans quickly create a database of their moods, which helps them pinpoint bad habits that they may not have recognized. The app records data and relays it to users, who then input more data and gain more insights, creating a loop.

"Tracking your emotions is very helpful in changing behavior," Morga says. "Data helps people to be more aware."

This drive to gain self-awareness may provide a golden opportunity for entrepreneurs and marketers, because Latinos are now America's largest ethnic minority. More important, the Hispanic community has a number of challenges that personal-feedback loops can alleviate.

For example, Hispanic kids continue to lag behind other groups in educational achievement. But a personal-feedback loop, properly designed, could help Latino students thrive. A different application might teach Hispanic parents how to better help their children with their homework.

Could a personal-feedback loop help recent immigrants learn English more quickly? Might the idea be applied to concepts like voter registration or proper prenatal care, both of which are issues within the Latino population?

Morga offers yet another example: Hispanics have a higher rate of diabetes than other ethnic groups do. Morga says her app can "help a diabetic or someone prone to diabetes understand when her emotions may affect her food choices or eating behaviors."

Of course, personal-feedback loops are not a panacea, for Latinos or anyone else. But their potential to create real and lasting change is intriguing.

As such, the era of big numbers may be drawing to a close. Yes, we all heard one of the most quoted statistics of the past year: the U.S. Census' revelation that Latinos are America's fastest-growing demographic. But however illuminating (or depending on your politics, alarming) you find this fact, it's clear that it is not actionable data. Snapshots of large populations offer little insight about what we can actually do with our lives.

For that, we need a personal-feedback loop.