History is scattered with luminaries who used personal reflection to change their lives. From the personal journal entries of James Boswell to the more scientific daily measurements of Sanctorius Sanctorius, people have used qualitative and quantitative records to better understand themselves. The inventor of seemingly everything, Benjamin Franklin, had a system to measure how well he lived his 13 virtues on a daily basis using the data to see where he went wrong with the intention of ultimately living a life free from transgression.

 

Over the last several years personal activity trackers have gained significant traction in the market place. BI Intelligence has conservatively forecasted a $12 billion market for wearable devices over the next 5 years. I've been using a Fitbit device for the past few years but I have also been tracking a variety of data points more manually for the last 5 years. Actively collecting & analyzing personal data definitely places me in the minority but also potentially as an early adopter.

 

As technology gets smaller and less expensive more and more people are actively & passively tracking data about themselves. Just looking at the news shows us how much data we are passively (sometimes unknowingly) generating about ourselves and is being used by big business and big government.

 

 

When will this wave of passive data collection break into active mainstream collection & use of data?

In some ways many people already do actively collect data. People are regularly posting thoughts to Twitter and Facebook which can be used as a running tally of feelings and analyzed for sentiment. Runners and cyclists have been using various hardware and smartphone apps for years now to analyze their performance. People can count calories and check their weight. We have credit card statements of how much we spend as well as investment data on how our money is performing. The problem though is that, with a few exceptions, most of this data is never seriously analyzed by the people generating it. Further, most of the data is left as isolated data sets and is rarely brought together into one consolidated view. Several activity trackers have ways of feeding other activity oriented data into their Dashboard pages but even then they remain isolated from other personal data.

 

So what's the hold up? Why is the notion of the quantified self still seen as a fringe concept? There are a few answers but two specifically. First, most people aren't very technical and connecting all these disparate data repositories is still not easy. A second answer could lie with the concept of path dependence. Most people don't actively collect & analyze personal data and it's easier to just keep not collecting & analyzing personal data. You have to go out of your way to get started and since most people you know aren't doing it it's hard to see the value.

 

So why develop your quantified self?

The answer is varied and up to you. Looking around the internet you can find a variety of people who collect personal data and study their own behavior for a variety of reasons. Nicholas Felton generates a very well designed personal annual report each year of his activity; Thomas Christiansen has studied how many times, and the circumstances under which, he sneezes to better understand his allergies. Most people collecting & analyzing their own data are doing so to improve some aspect(s) of their own lives.

 

One of the nice things about using data is that it is an impartial and detailed mirror of our lives. The human brain is greatly influenced by a variety of cognitive biases. In short we forget things and we aren't great at thinking about ourselves in the future. We suffer from impact bias which is the tendency for our prefrontal cortex to not simulate future situations as well as we think it can. To help make new or better decisions it is nice to have an impartial record of our behavior that might steer us towards the best (and possibly different) future course of action other than the one our brains may have imagined on their own.

 

As Richard Buckminster-Fuller said "There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes."