Quantifying the Self

 I track, therefore I am

Were he still alive, my father would be 100 years old this May. He was born at the family farmhouse in Smith Center, Kansas.  Because he was born at home with the help of a neighbor acting as a midwife, he had no birth certificate. The first time it was a concern was when he joined the Navy prior to World War II.  As I recall, he had to get “affidavits” from a number of people in order to get a “delayed” birth certificate.  Of course, in subsequent years data about his life were collected including: marriage license, social security, census, real estate records, employment records, health insurance, pension plans, and, finally, death certificate.

Fast forward to today, and it is obvious that my father was a statistical mystery compared to you and me. Thanks to scandals like NSA data mining, The questions we are now asking ourselves are-

Was 2013 the year online privacy died? Or was it the year that people paying attention realized that their online lives—and all their data and communications—was low-hanging fruit that was being picked and parsed by big government and big business?

Today it is  common knowledge that data are automatically and silently being collected by businesses and governmental agencies to track our behaviors online. For many of us, this is a dangerous invasion of our privacy. For others, however, data mining presents incredibly exciting opportunities. The leading-edge of this group are part of the newly emerging “Quantified Self” movement. The Quantified Self movement has individuals dispersed throughout the world -self-quantifiers- who are not only producing troves of data by virtue of simply going about their daily on-line business, but who are becoming conscious consumers of the data they produce.

So, for example, using various data collection devices along with computer applications, they can see if physical activity data collected on weekdays result in more exercise and more sleep than on weekends. They can then begin to hypothesize, form some sort of explanation, as to why a difference may or may not exist. In other words,  they can use personal data to conduct scientific, statistical analysis and use the results to make changes in their lives.

The term “Quantified Self” is attributed to Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, editors affiliated with Wired magazine, who used it informally in 2007 as the name for a local collaboration of users and technology toolmakers who are interested in automating the collection of data.  As public awareness grew and as new devices and technologies are becoming more familiar to consumers, the Quantified Self movement grew dramatically. Today, QSers communicate through local “MeetUp Groups” in many cities throughout the world and through a Web Site where community members share information through forums and videos. There are also annual conferences in America and Europe where “the global community of self-trackers and tool makers can meet and share”. The 6th annual QS European Conference will be held this May in Amsterdam.

I find the QS movement tremendously intriguing. There are any number of interesting implications surrounding what it means to quantify yourself. To what extent are you your data?  In September I started using a fit bit activity tracker. Just one of many devices that allow anyone to begin to track and analyze personal data, the fit bit allowed someone like me to dip a toe into the QS movement without tremendous time or effort. I will talk more about my personal experiences in subsequent posts. If any of you have had your own experiences with self-tracking let me know.


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