Monday, November 14, 2011

May I see your data?

There's a tiny area of overlap in the Venn Diagram of technology nerds, hard-core endurance athletes, Biggest-Loser style dieters, productivity masters, and Ben Franklin, and that is a subset of people who love to track things about themselves.  The latest issue of Discover Magazine has an interesting article called Our Data, Ourselves (doesn't appear to be online yet) that details the self-tracker movement and how the rise of smart phones has brought it to a whole new level.

The compulsion to track things- miles run, calories eaten, games of Dungeons and Dragons won, adherence to 13-virtues (in the case of Ben Franklin)- has been around for a long time.  Part of it is a sincere desire to improve something about our lives; part of it is probably just selfish navel gazing.  But what was once limited to committed (obsessed?) individuals with a log book or Excel spreadsheet has vaulted into the digital age with the PACO (for Personal Analytics Companion) ap developed by Google engineer Bob Evans (ha!, that's really his name).

PACO allows individuals to conduct their own experiments of N=1 and can be set up to track anything.  The thing that sets it apart from the "old-fashioned" self-tracking methods is that you don't have to remember to keep records, PACO will remind you itself.  Want to know how you are using your time at work?  You could keep a log and write down what you did every 15 minutes, or you could let PACO text you at random times during the day and ask you what you are doing.  A migraine sufferer might not think to record what he/she ate at her last meal until something triggered another debilitating headache, but the ap could be set up to ask a few simple questions about potential trigger foods after every meal.

The idea has even more potential for population studies of personal behavior where recall is notoriously horrible.  It's not limited to little things like, "Did you eat 1/3 cup of yogurt or 1/2 cup?"  I sat in on an interview for one of the studies I do data analysis for where the participant could not recall in what decade she had cancer.  In the realm of patient care, I'm sure doctors (and maybe even some patients) would love a digital "Did you take your medicine?" reminder.

Of course when you submit your data to the interwebz there are all sorts of privacy concerns.  Google of course swears your data is 100% completely secure and they would never mine/sell it.  All the same, I think a lot of people would be hesitant to track more sensitive things for fear they'll have a PACO pop up and remind them to buy more Preparation H at an inopportune time.      

As a statistician and semi self tracking enthusiast, I think that thing sounds awesome.  It's almost enough to make me want a smartphone.  I would love something that would remind me to take my medicine or record minutia about my day.  However, I'm sure to some people it sounds like their own personal version of Hell.

Are you a self-tracker?  Would you use an ap like this?  Does that sound like way fun and cool or like a digital version of your mom nagging you to clean your room?    


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