net.wars: Living by numbers

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 24 October 2008

"I call it tracking," said a young woman. She had healthy classic-length hair, a startling sheaf of varyingly painful medical problems, and an eager, frequent smile. She spends some minutes every day noting down as many as 40 different bits of information about herself: temperature, hormone levels, moods, the state of the various medical problems, the foods she eats, the amount and quality of sleep she gets. Every so often, she studies the data looking for unsuspected patterns that might help her defeat a problem. By this means, she says she's greatly reduced the frequency of two of them and was working on a third. Her doctors aren't terribly interested, but the data helps her decide which of their recommendations are worth following.

Wendy M Grossman

And she runs little experiments on herself. Change a bunch of variables, track for a month, review the results. If something's changed, go back and look at each variable individually to find the one that's making the difference. And so on.

Of course, everyone with the kind of medical problem – diabetes, infertility, allergies, cramps, migraines, fatigue – that medicine can't really solve – has done something like this for generations. Diabetics in particularly have long had to track and control their blood sugar levels. What's different is the intensity – and the computers. She currently tracks everything in an Excel spreadsheet, but what she's longing for is good tools to help her with data analysis.

From what Gary Wolf, the organizer of this group, Quantified Self, says – about 30 people are here for its second meeting, after hours at Palo Alto's Institute for the Future to swap notes and techniques on personal tracking – getting out of the Excel spreadsheet is a key stage in every tracker's life. Each stage of improvement thereafter gets much harder.

Is this a trend? Co-founder Kevin Kelley thinks so, and so does the Washington Post, which covered this group's first meeting. You may not think you will ever reach the stage of obsession that would lead you to go to a meeting about it, but in fact, if the interviews I did with new-style health companies in the past year is any guide, we're going to be seeing a lot of this in the health side of things. Home blood pressure monitors, glucose tests, cholesterol tests, hormone tests – these days you can buy these things in Wal-Mart.

The key question is clearly going to be: who owns your health data? Most of the medical devices in development assume that your doctor or medical supplier will be the one doing the monitoring; the dozens of Web sites highlighted in that Washington Post article hope there's a business in helping people self-track everything from menstrual cycles to time management. But the group in Palo Alto are more interested in self-help: in finding and creating tools everyone can use, and in interoperability.

One meeting member shows off a set of consumer-oriented prototypes – bathroom scale, pedometer, blood pressure monitor, that send their data to software on your computer to display and, prospectively, to a subscription Web site. But if you're going to look at those things together – charting the impact of how much you walk on your weight and blood pressure – wouldn't you also want to be able to put in the foods you eat? There could hardly be an area where open data formats will be more important.

All of that makes sense. I was less clear on the usefulness of an idea another meeting member has – he's doing a start-up to create it - a tiny, lightweight recording camera that can clip to the outside of a pocket. Of course, this kind of thing already has a grand, old man in the form of Steve Mann, who has been recording his life with an increasingly small sheaf of devices for a couple of decades now. He was tired, this guy said, of cameras that are too difficult to use and too big and heavy; they get left at home and rarely used. This camera they're working on will have a wide-angle lens ("I don't know why no one's done this") and take two to five pictures a second. "That would be so great," breathes the guy sitting next to me.

Instantly, I flash on the memory of Steve Mann dogging me with flash photography at Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2005. What happens when the police subpoenas your camera? How long before insurance companies and marketing companies offer discounts as inducements to people to wear cameras and send them the footage unedited so they can study behavior they currently can't reach?

And then he said, "The 10,000 greatest minutes of your life that your grandchildren have to see," and all you can think is, those poor kids.

There is a certain inevitable logic to all this. If retailers, manufacturers, marketers, governments, and security services are all convinced they can learn from data mining us why shouldn't we be able to gain insights by doing it ourselves?

At the moment, this all seems to be for personal use. But consider the benefits of merging it with Web 2.0 and social networks. At last you'll be able to answer the age-old question: why do we have sex less often than the Joneses?

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).