The (nerdy) data-driven life

Gary Wolf, of Wired and The Quantified Self, describes personal data collection and analysis in NYT magazine. Collect data about yourself, and you just might learn something.

Humans make errors. We make errors of fact and errors of judgment. We have blind spots in our field of vision and gaps in our stream of attention. Sometimes we can’t even answer the simplest questions. Where was I last week at this time? How long have I had this pain in my knee? How much money do I typically spend in a day? These weaknesses put us at a disadvantage. We make decisions with partial information. We are forced to steer by guesswork. We go with our gut.

That is, some of us do. Others use data.

It all sounds great at first. But the story ends, as these types of stories almost always do, with a guy in a Google shirt walking around with one too many gadgets:

Bo Adler, a young computer scientist at Fujitsu Laboratories of America, is one of the most committed self-trackers I’ve ever met: during his most active phase he wore a blood-pressure cuff, pulse oximeter and accelerometer all day long, along with a computer on a harness to collect the data. Adler has sleep apnea, and he is trying to figure it out. When he became too self-conscious going to the gym in his gear, he wore a Google T-shirt to throw people off. Maybe he was a freak, but at least people could mistake him for a millionaire freak.

We data folk stick to our guns though:

“My girlfriend thinks I’m the weird person when I wear all these devices,” Bo Adler says. “She sees me as an oddity, but I say no, soon everybody is going to be doing this, and you won’t even notice.”

So proud. You tell ’em, Bo Adler. You tell ’em.


  • As continuous data transmission and collection become the new normal, I wonder what tools will be out there for the general populace so they can see their own and others’ patterns in it — and what will be out there to disconnect from it and delete it at will.

    • yep. i’d say most of the focus has been on actual collection, which is why we always see pictures of guys wearing a bunch of contraptions. not much thought has been given to the display and end result yet.

      Wherever the general populace stuff ends up, I bet it’ll be more minority report than business report.

      • I was wondering if anyone knows projects to use these in a business environment/workplace.

        The sort of thing I’m imaging is to attach these contraptions to workers in as they work and to “capture” the knowledge and know-how of workers. Workers could voice annotate (as they work) to describe the problems they encounter as they are encountered and then a record could exist to help people in the organization solve those same problems at a later date.

      • Nothing comes to mind, but what you’re talking about sort of sounds like a combination of and

  • Nathan, are you currently gathering similar data? (Doesn’t have to be the same type of data. A blippy feed and a foursquare feed go a long way.) Do you have a lifestream?

  • I haven’t read the articles mentioned in this post yet, but I thought I would share my small example of my own where monitoring myself has made a big difference.

    After getting my iPhone, I installed the free app ‘Lose It’ and started tracking my calorie intake. I was ‘overweight’ for my BMI (I’m male, 6ft3in and started at 200lbs) when starting the experiment, but over the course of a year, I lost 25 lbs, to a more appropriate 175lbs. (None of this with any real exercise regimen – not that I shouldn’t be doing that too . . .)

    I understand people have been doing this kind of tracking for years, but I know I wouldn’t have done it without having a portable tool to collect this information that I also use for other purposes.

    • @VK – thanks for the tip. i just downloaded the app, and at a glance it looks pretty good. hopefully i’ll have similar results to yours :)

    • i track my runs. i previously used now I use the software with my garmin gps watch. i realize this is not the same type of ‘life tracking’ as in the article, but once i started doing this, it became really important for me to track every run. it’s almost like it doesn’t count if i don’t have it saved electronically.

      i keep track of distance, pace, heart rate, etc. i also like to compare monthly distance totals to previous years.