Quantified Self Syndrome: YOU – In Data, Charts and Graphs
You may not be familiar with the term quantified self or quantified self syndrome, but chances are fairly good that you’ve been conducting activities that are related to this concept. Simply put, quantified self refers to the logging and keeping track of personal data, mostly for the purposes of health and self-improvement.
So, if you’ve got a fitness tracker, if you monitor your sleep activity, if you weigh yourself regularly or keep notes on your moods, if you log your meals or even keep count of how many times you breastfeed your baby, you’re collecting quantified self data.
And really, it makes a lot of sense: we have the technology to collect details about ourselves like how many steps we take and how many calories we burn, log information that’s important to us, and aggregate all of this data is graphical format. You get a picture of yourself, broken down into numbers specific to you and you alone.
But Haven’t We Been Doing This?
In a way, we’ve been collecting quantified self-type data for a long, long time. We’ve kept track of the heights of growing children on the pantry door frame, stepped on the scale regularly to make sure we weren’t getting too heavy, and even portioned out our food to avoid overeating. This stuff is old hat.
But now, the amount of data we can record and save has exploded. Plus, we no longer have to record it all ourselves — it’s all tracked for us with our various devices and gadgets, loaded onto synced apps, and saved for all posterity. We track a lot, and soon, we’ll be able to (and perhaps even encouraged to) track it all.
Top Things We’re Measuring
A lot of what we’re tracking is related to weight loss and weight maintenance. In addition to height, weight, heart rate, and other body measurements, we’re logging physical activity and even meals. A lot of the latest tracker models can keep tabs on things like resting and active heart rate, body temperature, blood oxygenation level, galvanic skin response, respiration, blood glucose, and more.
Other devices and apps can track things like posture, moods, medications, external influences and factors, and of course sleep. Women can track things like menstruation and fertility, while new parents can track all sorts of things about their baby, like diaper changes, naps, and feedings. Collectible data even veers toward TMI territory, with apps that measure sexual performance (as long as a smartphone in bed with you isn’t a mood killer).
Knowing all of these metrics, the thinking goes, helps you stay healthy and happy — if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it, right?
Quantified Self – What’s the Point?
There’s no denying that knowing all of this data about ourselves, and our sheer ability to track it all in the first place, is really cool. Never before in the history of mankind have we had so much immediate access to very personal information. But eventually, the cool factor wears off a tad, and someone has to ask the question on the minds of everyone: What, exactly, is the point of knowing all this stuff?
According to tech writer Gary Wolf, there’s a simple benefit in knowing ourselves really well. In a short TED talk given by Wolf in 2010, he extols the virtues of aggregating, analysing, and quantifying ourselves, explaining, “The self is just our operation centre, our consciousness, our moral compass. So, if we want to act more effectively in the world, we have to get to know ourselves better.”
Initial Gender Bias
While quantified personal data may not seem like a potential trouble spot for gender bias, many female tech writers have pointed out that a lot of the data collection is skewed towards males. Articles appeared in The Atlantic and The Verge about how Apple Health excluded women.
It’s hard to argue, as the initial version of Apple’s tool didn’t even have any options for keeping track of periods. And while you can certainly make the case that there are lots of pink-themed lady apps for keeping track of important lady stuff, Health was supposed to be the single app to keep track of all of a person’s health data. It seemed like another way in which women were being quietly excluded.
The most recent version of Health remedied this issue, giving women the option of tracking a surprising array of personal data that men never have to worry about. Not only is there now a menstruation tracker, but there are fields to enter sexual activity (including protection used, if any) and ovulation test results. There are even places to record basal body temperature and cervical mucous quality, both of which are important markers in determining when a woman is most likely to conceive.
The Big Names in the Industry
You probably already know a lot of the leaders in the quantified self arena. Big name fitness trackers like Fitbit and Jawbone are wirelessly keeping track of the activity and rest of literally millions of users. Don’t have a tracker? Well, chances are good that if you’ve got a smartphone (and the odds say you do), you’re using it to track at least a few measurements. Fitness apps like MapMyRun, MyFitnessPal, and all of the Nike+ offerings have been downloaded millions of times.
Of course, the big names in the field are in on the action as well. Apple’s HealthKit and Health app offer a consolidated place to store all sorts of metrics, all of which can be accessed by medical professionals in the event of an emergency.
Plus, what is the Apple Watch if not a spangly and glorified aggregator of personal data? For Android fans, Google Fit serves a very similar purpose: collect data about health and activity to keep you slimmer, healthier, and happier.
Awesome Apps and Tools
While there are lots of individual apps that record a handful of metrics, some apps and tools are more comprehensive in their approach. There’s a definite movement toward putting all of your data in one place to see how one factor affects the others in your life, hence the growing number of apps and tools to aggregate and collect tons of personal data. Beyond Health and Fit, here are a few to get you started.
Available for iOS and Android, HabitBull is a good app to start with for a number of reasons. First, it allows you to keep track of just about anything; if you can measure and enter it, you can track it.
Next, it’s goal oriented — with HabitBull, you don’t feel like you’re just collecting data indefinitely for no real purpose. Instead, it’s very easy to see your good habits forming and your poor habits going away. Also, the principle behind the app is a visual productivity chain.
The thinking goes that if you can see your productivity on a calendar, you create psychological momentum and are better able to keep your good habits moving forward. Finally, it’s totally free, which is often the magic word when it comes to whether or not you’ll give an app a try.
Calling itself the world’s leading contextual quantified self and life blogging platform, Instant is more than a complete fitness tracking app.
It can show you where you’ve travelled and stopped, but more than that, it monitors your device usage, including how much time you spend on individual apps. This is especially helpful if you’re trying to break the habits of constantly checking social media feeds, playing Candy Crush, or mindlessly using your smartphone in general.
It’s out for both iOS and Android, and it integrates with Google Fit. The initial download is free, though in-app upgrades will run you a few quid each.
Perhapd the most fascinating (in theory) tool is Gyroscope. The goal of Gyroscope is to let you see everything in one place. It’s a web tool that collects data from wearables and other tracking apps like RunKeeper, Jawbone, Fitbit, Foursquare, Strava, Instagram, Twitter, and others (including even Health and Fit) and puts in all in one place.
It’s a great execution toward the purpose of all this quantified self-ing: seeing how all of your activities affect one another. You can share your data with others in the Gyroscope community or keep it to yourself, and at the end of each week, you’ll get a personalised report of your life data.
The Future of Self Quantification
While the technology is certainly in place to record all of our numbers, and while the point of it all seems to make sense in theory, it’s still unclear as to whether or not all of this data collection will ultimately help us live happier and more productive lives. It can be hard to find humanity in a line graph, and all the numbers in the world can’t add up to what’s going on in your heart.
Still, you have to go back to the old business school line paraphrased above: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. As more and more people continue to track, having all of this data should be helpful for improving health as well as medical care. And really, a well-informed and healthy populace is never a bad thing.