You are being tracked. Every single day, little pieces of your data are flying home to the vault. EZPass knows your driving habits, FICO knows (seemingly) everything, CVS anticipates when you need more band-aids, Target knows when you’re pregnant, Facebook can predict when you’ll get engaged, and FourSquare knows what you did last summer.
We’re essentially writing in a data diary every day, creating the story of our lives for an audience of analysts. Without having to do anything, we’re receiving the most efficient marketing ever, whether its for band-aids or diamond rings. But what happens when we track ourselves, for ourselves?
The desire to own and analyze personal information is crystallizing into the Quantified Self movement and it’s picking up steam, transforming Fitbit wearers, RunKeepers, and Lose It! users into data junkies. The official home of QS is, of course, in California:
The Quantified Self is an international collaboration of users and makers of self-tracking tools. Quantified Self Labs is a California-based company founded by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly that serves the Quantified Self user community worldwide by producing international meetings, conferences and expositions, community forums, web content and services, and a guide to self-tracking tools. Our aim is to help people get meaning out of their personal data.
This movement is a growing boon for data and research scientists as people are self-creating troves of information about themselves. In the journal, Big Data, Melanie Swain declared that, “The individual body becomes a more knowable, calculable, and administrable object through QS activity, and individuals have an increasingly intimate relationship with data as it mediates the experience of reality.”
What does this intimate relationship with data look like? How do our individual experiences wrap into the larger whole?
Here in the heart of the data-loving RJMetrics office, a gaggle of nerds are quantifying themselves, tracking information about everything from steps taken and sleep patterns, to mood and that time a run made a shape like a shoe.
This is what people are learning about themselves:
Nate Scott, Engineer – Fitbit One
Nate started using a Fitbit One three months ago as he decided to start taking his diet seriously, and wanted something that would integrate with his calorie counting app. Over the last few months, some things have changed for Nate. “I really like to see the amount of steps I go up. It’s a weird achiever complex since if I get enough steps, I get a smiley face.” There’s something about it that also invites competition. Nate’s been walking instead of hailing a cab or looking for more ways to walk uphill in the service of beating his girlfriend (who’s currently kicking his ass). Reflecting on the way the Fitbit’s prompted him to change, he said, “There’s something strange about it too, being manipulated by somebody’s marketing, even if it is for my own benefit.”
TLDR; The Fitbit makes Nate walk more, be more competitive with his girlfriend, and he finds the fact that it changes his behavior kind of strange.
Janessa Lantz, Marketing – Fitbit Flex
Janessa was attracted to the Fitbit because she likes its simple, straight-forward philosophy towards health: move more. She started using it for step counting to make sure she was getting enough activity every day. Her behavior changed almost immediately, “I stopped focusing on getting infrequent high intensity workouts. Now I aim for frequent, lower intensity routines every day. Fitbit encourages this consistency in routine, plus I get a smiley face when I hit 10,000 steps and the wristband buzzes…this is weirdly motivating.” Janessa also gained some unexpected insight based on the sleep data that Fitbit collects, “You know how they say don’t drink alcohol before bed? My data proved this is great advice. I’m way more restless if I have a glass of wine late in the evening.”
TLDR; Janessa’s Fitbit changed her behavior. She changed her workout routine to be shorter but more consistent, and gave up wine before bed.
Stephanie Liu, Marketing – Fitbit Flex
Stephanie got a Fitbit because Janessa bragged about hers, and Stephanie wanted to take her down. The electronic tracker set off a competitive streak, so she bought one for her boyfriend at the same time, mostly to give her an opportunity to “kick his ass.” But she’s noticed it doing more for her over the last several weeks. “I view things differently because of it. If I leave my glasses upstairs – now I get excited for the opportunity to go back up the steps. It logs all these little things that let you know you’re getting somewhere towards your goals. And it makes you want to try new things. I might go running.”
TLDR; Stephanie was initially motivated by a competitive nature to beat Janessa, but now she’s setting new goals for herself and trying new ways to be active throughout the day.
Bob Moore, CEO – RunKeeper
Bob started running because he’s a self-proclaimed “efficiency freak,” who started off counting calories to lose weight and discovered running was the fastest way to burn calories was to run them off. Over several years and heavy RunKeeper use, Bob’s evolved into a serious runner with multiple half marathons completed. “There’s a lot of gamification,” he says, “and it’s habit forming.” He can find out how fast, how far, how many calories, how he compared, if he’s on-track for the latest goal, or if he’s staying ahead of his friends. “This let’s me tell if I’m a man of my word or not,” he said. And Bob developed a new goal; he wants to create shapes in the map his run forms. After discovering a completed run made the shape of a shoe, “that was pretty cool,” he said, “and there are other people doing this on Google.”
TLDR; Bob started running to burn calories fast but became enamoured with the gamification and competition inherent to RunKeeper and built a habit, until he became a half-marathoner.
Ben Garvey, Engineer – DailyMile, Note-taking
Ben started running three years ago at the same time he started using the DailyMile app to track his progress. He enjoyed the game of it, trying to beat his friends, finding “it was really weird. I was trying to get in better shape and found how easy it was. The social pressure really made me stick with it.” Ben’s also starting using the basic Notes app on his phone to record his weight every day. So far, keeping track is all he’s doing, but he likes that “I always have my phone and can get my data out. Theoretically, I can use it.”
TLDR; Ben used DailyMile as he started running to track his progress and found the competition and social pressure turned running into a habit.
Brian is explicitly about the Quantified Self, but not for fitness. “I most definitely do not work out, even though I probably should,” he said. Brian really loves information. He wants to see the exact route he skied down the slopes, exactly how many steps it is to the post office, and that he’s waking up at the right moment in his sleep schedule. Because he exports all his Foursqure check-ins into iCalendar, “I can tell you how many times I’ve been to El Camino or the name of that awesome brunch place from the wedding in New Orleans. It’s all about knowing all the information to possibly use it in the future. I can find anything.”
TLDR; Brian’s self-tracking nearly everything about his life and can gleefully recall small pieces of information immediately. This habit feeds his addiction to information of all types.
Before it broke, Connor was using his Jawbone to track steps and find what was affecting his sleep patterns. Because of that, he says, “I don’t let the cat in my bedroom anymore.” He hadn’t realized she was keeping him awake. Connor discovered StrongLift5x5, a weightlifting app, through Reddit, and has been using in the gym as a responsive personal trainer. “I tend to be the type of person who sits down and makes a plan, but then I get overzealous and burn myself out. This keeps me from getting too insane.” The app tells him how much weight to lift at how many repetitions as he goes through the gym, and he’s curious to find if he succeeds in building an app-assisted habit.
TLDR; Connor used a Jawbone to find what he needed to change about sleeping, kicked the cat out, and finds motivation towards building a weight-lifting habit through StrongLifts5x5.
What’s the bigger story?
In the office, and in the larger world, people are making a habit of tracking their data and that’s creating other new habits. Trackers are forming new loops of Cue – Routine – Reward through their apps and devices.
The app creates a cue, which prompts exercise or a review of personal information, and then gives a reward through a smiley face, a shoe-shaped run, beating a boyfriend’s score, or a beatiful data graph. Establishing new habits is notoriously difficult, and socialized self-quantification is like a Game Genie, hacking our brains to make it easier.
At RJMetrics, social pressure netted two new runners, competition exercisers, information better sleepers, and those actions have built into habits. Those habits are making healthier, better rested, happier individuals.
But it’s in the larger application of self-quantification that things could get really interesting. The more data is shared, the more potential there is to solve larger problems. We can use the information for sharing insights, and even reaching towards better lives.
Patients Like Me lets people opt in to share “treatments, symptoms, and experiences” with others who share their condition and medical researchers. Crohnology is specifically for patients with Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, chronic immune diseases that attack the digestive system. These cause of these conditions is still a mystery and there isn’t any cure, but the data being collected is valuable in finding trends that help make the sufferers’ lives better.
If we own our data and choose to use and share it, the potential is exciting. Imagine what would happen if researchers had Fitbit’s database. What could the CDC do if they didn’t have to spend so much time and resources on data collection? The body of health data would be enormous. Individual people are already starting to gain more insight into what helps their peers — if, as a society, we share more purposeful information for the common good, the impact could improve our world.
In the meantime
What do you think? Are you using any of the many devices or applications out there? What’s your experience? What do you think the next development of the Quantified Self will be?
Data alone won’t change the world.
It’s the people that use data to make better
decisions. Get inspired to join the ranks of Galileo and Florence Nightingale.