Data-Driven Life: The Quantified Self

Wouldn’t it be great if you could track your blood pressure, heart rate, calories, sleep patterns, spending habits, and running speed? Well now with self-tracking tools and devices it is possible.

Gathering and analyzing personal data about everyday activities leads to healthy eating and exercise choices, better sleep, and higher productivity. Self-tracking can improve quality of our lives.

Self-tracking devices and services make it easy to gather and analyze personal data. They help us to listen to and understand our physical activity patterns better.  Apps catering to the quantified self can help us lose weight and sleep better, through body-generated data.

How? Smart wristbands (Fuel Band and FitBit) and Smart Watches (Garmin Forerunner, Nike+ Sport Watch, Sony Smart Watch) help us to understand our physical activity levels, by counting steps and measuring heart rate and speed. A sensor called LUMOback can detect our posture throughout the day. The Withings Scale helps us track our weight to form healthy eating habits. And check out “Quantified Mind.” This website has a quantified method to measure mental performance – by helping us understand how sleep affects our mental performance.

All good things have a beginning. The Quantified Self movement originated in San Francisco, after Wired editors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly proposed it in 2007. But the history of self-tracking using wearable, wireless sensors dates back to the 1970s (of course, they did not have wireless back then – unless you were prepared to hook yourself up to a ham radio).

Then, Quantified Self users and tool makers formed groups, organized meet ups, and held conferences to share an interest in self knowledge through self-tracking. Today, the Quantified Self global community has more than 100 groups in 31 countries worldwide.

Measuring things to chart progress towards a goal is not a new idea. So why has it become very cool only in recent years?  Organizations, hospitals, schools and companies measure their turnover, profits and inventory all the time.

What is essential about this exciting movement is that it is now accessible to everyone, through easy-use devices and our personal data. We do not need to go through expensive and time-consuming procedures to understand some of the simple activity patterns of our daily lives. Sensors have shrunk and become cheaper. For example, accelerometers, which measure changes in direction and speed, used to be very expensive but are now cheap and small enough to be included in smartphones. This makes it much easier to take the quantitative methods used in science and business and apply them to the personal sphere. If you walk into an Apple or Best Buy store today you can find more than 25 different tracking devices on the shelves that varies from General Health tracking devices to Activity Monitors and from GPS Watches to Heart Rate Monitors. Each one comes with an easy to use guidelines and seamless wearable technologies that provide meaningful, rich data to better control our lives.

It is so easy to track our daily lives and analyze our personal “specs.” Technologies that were once very expensive have become affordable enough the make the advent of science and technology a reality in our daily lives.

To see how this works in real life, take the example of Summer Bedard - a New York City social software designer and technologist – who has been tracking herself for the last 3 years. She tracked her running activity using Fuelband. If you were at the Interactive Marketing Conference (IPZ) in 2011, you heard her talk about this initiative. Well, she is still tracking her running activity using a Garmin Forerunner smart watch. She can track her heart rate, speed, and distance. She can connect to other runners who are wearing the same device around her. The watch archives her activity history, giving her the ability to run a race against her previous best times on a particular running course: a powerful motivation.  The watch is also GPS-enabled so if she gets lost she can backtrack her path to get back to civilization. She also has discovered that she has spent $620 for alcohol last month and $120 for food through the expense tracker app called Expenditure.

Start-ups in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are launching new devices and software aimed at self-trackers. In the future, watch for this trend to infiltrate health care, in which a variety of gizmos will help mankind  prevent disease, prolong lives, and reduce medical costs.

Such hopes are not just dreams, but reality. Take, for example, the Spiroscout, a sensor developed by start-up company Asthmapolis. It attaches to an asthma inhaler, and uses satellite-positioning data to enable patients and researchers to determine when air quality is making an asthma sufferer’s condition worse. And then there is Boozerlyzer, an app for Android smartphones, helps people track their drinking and uses simple games to measure the effect of alcohol on coordination, reaction times, memory, and emotions.

In sleep research, the Zeo app is generating the largest-ever database on sleep stages, revealing differences between men and women in REM-sleep quantity.

Crowdsourcing catalyzes the full potential of the Quantified Self. Tens of thousands of patients around the world are sharing information about symptoms and treatments for hundreds of conditions on websites such as PatientsLikeMe and CureTogether. Of course, Google has made sure that they are in the mix too. They allow people to transfer FitBit data Google Drive spreadsheets to enable non-programmers to use FitBit API.

The growing number of self-tracking devices increases the scope if large-scale data collection, enabling users to analyze their own readings and aggregate them with those of other people. Jawbone, also based in San Francisco, has released the Up, a wristband that communicates with an iPhone to measure physical activity and sleep patterns. Basis, another San Francisco start-up, launched a wristwatch-like device that measures heart rate, skin conductance and sleep patterns, all of which can then be displayed on a “health dashboard”.

Although most people do not routinely record their moods, sleeping patterns or activity levels, track how much alcohol or caffeine they drink or chart how often they walk or run, quantified self movement is still a very exciting chapter in human development. As populations age and health-care costs increase, taking control of one’s own life - Health 2.0- becomes more essential. Ubiquitous, low-cost, and always-on connected sensors built-in to sleek devices generate tons of personal data. All that information at our fingertips at all times allows us to carefully chart a path for improvement—and share our winning strategy and stats with others, including healthcare providers, to create a healthier and happier interconnected world. As entrepreneurs, technologist, scientists and designers understand user's needs, more efficient self-tracking tools are created and meaningful insights of tracked data are generated.

The more well-informed and equipped we become, the healthier and happier our lives. Socrates was correct: the well-examined life is indeed worth living. The take-away for consumers is, the technology to access our personal data, and compare it in real-time to others, is here now, and available like never before.

A Garmin Fenix GPS Watch will be a birthday gift to myself this year. I cannot wait to start using it to track my activity level to see what sort of surprises and insights are hiding in my own personal data.

PUBLISHED @ Dijifarma