A Perfect Personal Data Collection Application

The number of Web applications to collect data and information about yourself continues to grow; if you want to track something, most likely there’s an online tool to do it. This is great – especially since a lot of the applications seem to have a lot of users, which means an interest in data. Whether it is deliberate or not is a different question, but you know, that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that people are taking notice. However, as users, developers, and designers, we shouldn’t be satisfied too quickly with what we have. Want more. Demand more. It’s interesting and oftentimes fun to log data about your life – whether it be when you go the bathroom, your sugar levels, or your mood. You get some nice graphs and charts, it looks cool, and maybe you learn something about yourself.

But all the self-surveillance tools so far are mostly about a single dataset or two at most. You track your weight and what you eat, but it’s more complex than that. Life is complicated and data is an abstraction of life after all. Do you eat when you’re depressed or are you depressed when you eat? Do you feel better if you exercise? What about sleep? How much sleep and exercise is best for you? What days should you exericse and how many days in a row and for how long? What truly makes you happy? I want my self-surveillance application to not only give me the ability to find these answers but to give them to me with very little effort on my part.

Process It and Find Information

There’s no need for me to go over all the personal tools available online again, but they all share a common theme. They concentrate on a single aspect of your life, and the more generalized ones don’t do much to relate multiple data streams. For example, RescueTime only measures activity on your computer, Bedpost is specifically for sex, and Motionbased is only for exercise. I’m not trying to knock these tools though. The area is relatively new, so we’re all just getting started. My own project, your.flowingdata, is not even close to where I want it to be. Applications like Swivel (which I realize isn’t specifically for self-surveillance) and me-trics do some correlating, but it’s very basic and often not very useful. Daytum uses the Google Charts API, and has managed to make it look good, but there’s no data processing on their part, which is again, the theme we’re seeing across all self-surveillance tools.

It’s the show-it-all approach. This works to extent, but the human brain can only process so much. I’m specifically thinking about the non-professional majority who don’t necessarily know statistical methods. Even if you do, woudln’t be nicer if the computer/application did it for you (in an intelligent way)? I mean, if all the data are on the server anyways, we might as well do something useful with it.

Digital Self in a Physical World

Okay, more data processing. Check. The ultimate self-surveillance tool has also gotta be ubiquitous. I don’t want to have to wait to get to my computer to record something. I want to log it right then and there. Luckily mobile phones make that possible. With SMS and Internet connectivity practically everywhere, we can log data pretty easily. Twitter has made it easier.

There’s still the tough part of remembering to send data over to the servers. A lot of it is manual data entry still, and that leads to sparse data. It also takes a while for anything worthwhile to show up in the graphs and plots, so people get bored quick. You’re dubbed a “data geek” if you keep at it.

I don’t know if we’ll ever get rid of that stigma, but I look at Facebook and Twitter as my glimmers of hope. There’s a whole culture around the two. Everyone thought Twitter was a super nerdy thing to do (my wife still thinks it’s weird), but millions of people are using it and the (mainstream) community is growing at a rapid pace.

Facebook in particular has managed to intertwine itself with real life. I hung out with a very non-tech crowd this past weekend, and I heard about Facebook more than I ever had in my life. People use it to stay updated on their friends’ lives as well as keep others in the know, and update their status multiple times per day. After an event in the real world, many feel it’s necessary to upload pictures to Facebook immediately after. It’s an interesting culture. Of course, people don’t use Facebook to broadcast their weight or when just went doodie, but they are uploading and entering info (or data depending on who you ask) frequently, and I don’t see why that culture couldn’t extend to more data-ish things. Some people will cry information overload, but that’s what data processing is for.

Make It Exploratory

The computer shouldn’t do all the processing though. It should do a lot, but not everything. We are after all pretty good at finding patterns (even when they’re not there). When you’ve been collecting data about yourself for a long while, you’re going to need some exploratory tools. Without them, the pie graph and bar charts will get out of hand, and you’re pretty much back at where you started – a boat load of data with nowhere to go. I’m thinking something like a Many Eyes for automatic personal data. You would then tell the computer to keep an eye on things when you find something interesting in the visualization tools. Imagine all your data streams in one place where you could explore, analyze, bookmark, etc.

The Perfect Self-surveillance Tool

In the end, I want all of my data in one place with some machine learning in the background and the ability to analyze and visualize easily and thoroughly. We’re not quite there yet, but I’m looking forward to when we do. Information overload? No. Better-educated decisions and a completely different view of ourselves and our surroundings? Definitely.

What’s in your perfect self-surveillance tool?


  • My perfect self-surveillance tool is the networked, sensing, mobile computing platform I carry in my pocket all day long: my cell phone.

    The tools that people use will be those that have low to no barriers to their adoption: they are passive collectors of data. Several examples: (i) a voice recorder to listen to speech tones to detect if I’m sad or angry, (ii) an accelerometer to detect my gait and infer my overall health (see work by Ary Goldberger), (iii) a bluetooth enabled watch that transparently detects my pulse rate, and pings my phone at steady intervals.

  • I agree with Michael. My problem is that people move all the time — unless there’s an iPhone app, with a rediculously easy interaface, I’m just not going to use one, even though I want to!

    For instance the “Tweet your stats” to @xxx is ok, I did it for a while, but man, it’s a lot of tweeting. I’d rather open up an app and just tap a button everytime I need to log something. No sending, no typing, nothing. Just tap once, and the stat is updated.

    Also, I don’t always have my iPhone either… so there needs to be browser extensions and dashboard widgets, everywhere you might be operating digitally, there needs to be a plugin, it’s the only way you’re going to have people willingly enter in everytime they drank water — though it’s important, I can’t imagine someone sprinting back to their computer just to write how many cups of water they just drank. But I can imagine someone who’s probably already on their iPhone tapping the “Drank a cup of water” button on their app.

  • Whats the point of taking the time to aggregate personal data if it doesn’t tell something about our selves. I signed up for Daytum but never use it. Inputting data there is just work, then I have to do the analysis also.

    I would like a scale that is under the door mat, that measures my weight ‘passively’, then alerts me when I am getting too heavy, and possibly suggests it’s because the refrigerator (which also records data) has been opening past midnight at a greater frequency, or that my running shoes (which have sensors) have not betting getting much use, excluding of course the recent rainy weather, which is logged as well.

    I don’t think we are there yet though.

  • Besides Flowing Data, the next best resource tracking this trend is The Quantified Self (http://www.quantifiedself.com/). They cover many different form factors and interfaces.

    In the end, for patient safety and wellness, the best tools will need to be ambient, automatic and mobile.

    Of course, we are walking confidently into a brave new world of the Panopticon, in which an invisible omniscience is achieved.

    The guy that has figured out how to track every aspect of his life is Prof. Hasan Elahi (http://elahi.sjsu.edu/) who has turned the daily, boring activities of eating, relieving oneself, shopping and going to bed a high art, inspired by his detention by the FBI after 9/11.

    Same with Jonathan Harris, especially his Whale Hunt that captures not only heart rate and images, but mapped colors and emotion. http://thewhalehunt.org/whalehunt.html

  • Hi Nathan,

    Totally agree with the need to do more with less, in this case, more life-tracking that doesn’t require a million different logins across the internet. Clearly I’m biased towards zeaLOG, cus it is my baby, but that was one of the main goals we had in design…flexibility of purpose, so the user can decide what measurement is important to them, whether it is gas mileage, money, booze intake, weight, or what have you. That said, we are also firm believers that almost nothing works best in isolation, so social components, like group tracking is a big part of the site. It seems to work pretty well, at least for me.

    On point with the commenters above, I’m kind of of two minds. I love the idea of more passively tracking, but then I run into the concern that the data I get won’t be meaningful in the end. For instance, if I track all the music that streams through my computer, I’m not actually listening to all that music, it’s just on…if that makes sense. On the other hand, if I rely upon a purposeful action to enter data, whether it is through an api, twitter, iphone or web, I’m already making a statement that the particular piece of data is important to me. That’s another tracking device right there.

    I also like to look at data over time, so I’m getting more of a guage of “how I’m doing” vs. “how I’ve done”. I think there is a place for everyone, though, with all the choices becoming available.

  • smallerdemon April 7, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    I am not sure I really want to get all the boring little details of what I am doing collected like that. “Wow, I pooped a LOT last week. And strangely enough, I tweeted every one of them.”

    My favorite tool for personal data collection is Tiddlywiki. Lightweight, extensible plugin architecture, cross platform compatible with any platform that has a web browser, cross reference tagging, embedding of things like Google Calendar and tasks (among many, many other things), etc. It may not kick back visualized data to me, but it does what a great personal wiki should do and it does it better and faster and easier and with less overheard than anything else out there.

  • Nathan – very interesting post, and comments are really insightful so far.

    Jess – I agree with your statement that we’re not there yet, “there” being defined as passive, continuous data collection, real-time data transmission and automated reporting and analytics.

    What else is needed though? Don’t we have all the pieces of the puzzle but no one has put them together yet? Sensing technologies, bluetooth, cellular broadband, SMS, analytics algorithms, statistical methods, data visualization techniques – these are well established.

    My question is – what fundamental element in the future state vision doesn’t already exist? All we have to do is put the pieces together, right?

    But – how do we make it happen? If there really are no fundamental barriers, what is getting in the way?

  • I’ve been using your.flowingdata and really like it a lot though there obviously a lot of areas it could be improved in. I like the active rather than passive — though it wouldn’t be too far fetched to see a scale someday that would say, twitter my weight — but it really helps that there is a built in way to go back and enter data I missed. So the next morning I can twitter watched xyz at 9:00 pm. There really needs to be a way to edit/delete info there though (for example, when I accidentally Twitter at 9:00 am instead of at 9:00 pm).

    That said, I currently use about 10-12 different services that are aggregated in different areas.

    First, I have a lifestream blog at http://brian.carnell.com/life_stream/ which aggregates public info — facebook updates, tweets, netflix rentals, last.fm listening stream, my wish list, blog updates, comments i make on websites — stuff that is already public or semi-public already and I just want it aggregated in one spot where i can then datamine it.

    Second, I use your.flowingdata to track and aggregate information that I don’t usually make public but usually wouldn’t be awful if it leaked. I wouldn’t feel comfortable posting my weight or diet to FB, but I like being able to track it there (so far it’s working — I’ve lost 6 pounds in the month or so I’ve been using it actively — nice feedback loop).

    Finally, I have a private microblog hosted on a server I control that I update with ongoing information that is a bit more sensitive and/or other tools don’t adequately capture yet.

    Overall, I’m probably making about 30 active updates daily with probably twice that in passive updates, depending on how active I am on a particular day.

    I agree with Emily in that what I see a need for more of is flexibility. The ability to self-define categories and track that whether its gas mileage, my latest triglyceride count, or the number of pair of t-shirts i currently own.

  • This all just sounds like a huge waste of time to me.

  • @ doug said: “this all just sounds like a huge waste of time to me.”

    Then I certainly wouldn’t recommend doing it.

  • I am as obsessed about this as I am frustrated with the time I waste on it. When I find the holy grail of time tracking I might actually get something done. :-) Just wanted to add some other services to the mix http://dailydiary.com is nearly perfect. i has personal and group charts and automatically emails you at set intervals to report on what you are tracking.

    It uses email which for me is essential.