I’m sure this will come as no surprise to all of you, but personal data collection fascinates me. I love playing with data and when it’s about me, all the better. Daytum and mycrocosm are two applications that let you do this; although each have somewhat different goals. Daytum is sort of like a financial report for your life (ala Feltron) while mycrocosm is more of an experiment in communication and social media. They do both, however, have an underlying goal, whether implicit or explicit, of understanding yourself better. Do Daytum and mycrocosm help you understand yourself better? At some level, yes, but both have room for improvement. Here is my attempt #1 to improve on these existing systems.
Sacrificing Specificity for Flexibility
Daytum and mycrocosm let you start your own personal tracking for whatever data fit into a pie chart, bar graph, line chart, or a list i.e. Google Charting API. This is fine, and can very well be useful, but after a little while (like after a week), I got bored, and haven’t done much with the two apps since. But why?
I think it was because mycrocosm’s charts are so basic that I wasn’t getting anything out of it. I was just collecting data for the sake of collecting it. On the other hand, Daytum does at least allow a little bit (albeit, a very little bit) of interaction and is better designed on the frontend. There’s no way to enter data via SMS with Daytum though (mycrocosm does), so my data entry was pretty sparse…and so began my own experiment.
Borrowing Lessons from Self-Experiments
Not quite satisfied with what I had available, I created my own self-surveillance bot to try to figure out what my ideal mycrocosm or Daytum might look like. I happened to just finish reading Seth Roberts and Allen Neuringer‘s paper on self-experimentation in which they identified 6 lessons learned from their own self-experiments:
- Measure something you care about
- Make data collection and analysis as easy as possible
- Taking more than one measure is usually worth the trouble
- Make graphs
- Communicate your ideas
- A flawed experiment is better than none
These lessons seemed like a good place to start, so I loosely used them as a base for my own self-surveillance.
Tracking Weight and Foooood
I’ve gained about 15 pounds since I started graduate school – largely in part from sitting in front of a computer all day, snacking, and not exercising over the past four years. Yeah, that’ll do it to you. Shocking, I know. So weight is certainly something I care about. That covers lesson one.
Now for lesson 2: make data collection and analysis easy. I chose Twitter as my data entry point. I use Twitter already (especially with my new phone with the QWERTY keyboard), so it wasn’t a huge burden to start tweeting what I eat. I created my own Twitter bot and created my own basic language. When I consume something, I send a direct message to my bot, and when I weigh myself, I tell my bot how much I weigh. Since all of this is via Twitter, I have multiple points of entry – mainly mobile phone and computer. My bot then of course sticks everything into a database. Tada, I now have data that I can run analysis on.
Lesson 4: make graphs. Don’t have to tell me twice. The important thing here was making sure I showed the things I care about. I need motivation. I stuck that in big print, above the fold. I care about how much I weight, and whether or not I will reach my goal. I care how much time I have left and whether or not I’m on track to achieve. I tried to take this into account as I put together my progress page.
What Can We Learn?
Ultimately, I want maximum output for minimum input. Does this simple self-surveillance do me any good? Does it really help me improve myself? As you can see, I haven’t exactly lost any weight in the past 2 weeks. However, it is interesting that my weight went down some in the beginning. Then I went on travel for a week (when there aren’t many weight measurements) and wasn’t so diligent in keeping track of eating and weight. I got back home a couple of days ago and I’m back to where I started.
My main hope is that I can argue that this more specific type of self-surveillance, in contrast to mycrocosm and Daytum, provides me with more motivation, more use, and something more than just satisfying a curiosity in the minutiae of everyday life. Change is what I’m after. What do you think? Do I have hope or am I just wasting my time?
UPDATE: If I were to make this public, would anyone want to use it?