Finally, A Better Way For “Quantified Self” Products To Collect Personal Data

One Facebook designer/developer thinks he may have cracked the formula for creating personal analytics apps that are actually usable.

I bet you could tell me offhand almost exactly how many Facebook friends you have, or how many songs are in your iTunes library, or even who went to Starbucks with you last Wednesday. People love collecting data about themselves anecdotally, but when it’s recorded by software--a phenomenon called quantified self--the analytics of your life can start to paint a bigger picture in steps, calories, venues, friends, and timestamps.

But the quantified-self movement is at an early crossroads. Do we really want to be journaling our activities all day long? And do we really want to be wearing Terminator jewelry that tracks every step we take? What about, you know, just living?

Devices like the Nike FuelBand and Samsung’s Galaxy Gear smartwatch have serious practical limitations. They’re ugly, they’re battery powered, and they can too easily become our masters, constantly needing attention and fiddling to set goals, check results, log details, and recharge.

One clever engineer has a different idea: Nicholas Felton, a product designer at Facebook and founder of Daytum who has been publishing his now-famous “Personal Annual Reports” since 2005. He’s creating a soon-to-be-public app to help him automate the reports, and in the process, has picked up on an ingeniously simple method for collecting data--one which comes from other academic fields that also confront huge datasets. That technique is random sampling.

The problem quantified self has now, and the problem that most hobbies have, is that you tire of them. Just like knitting or that cooking class you swore you’d go to, you’ll give up on your battery-powered device after two weeks. But the only way quantified self is useful is if it’s long term, since you need a lot of data to draw real insights, and so it has to be extremely low-maintenance.

Being low-maintenance is job number one for a quantified-self app, since the data they collect from accelerometers and GPS is a commodity. When it comes to being successful in the quantified-self space, “the best user experience is going to be where the most people are,” Felton says.

But in order to keep people enfranchised, there has to be more than just a fitness angle, says Felton. “I think a lot of the businesses out there are very behavior change oriented, and again, for real broad uptake of these things, I think there have to be other hooks that are involved.”

Hooks like social features, that is. For things with quantifiable data, people love competition, or at the very least, social interaction. It’s much more fun to know how many steps you took yesterday when you also know how many steps your brother took. This comparative knowledge becomes the baseline for goals you might set, or simply keeps you alert and interested in the numbers you’re gathering.

Storytelling is crucial to social apps, which is why another feature of successful quantified-self products, Felton says, is automated or semi-automated reporting of the activities that generated the data.

“Journaling is another aspect I find really interesting--the storytelling. If you are sharing different aspects of your life, I think that’s like another dimension that’s pretty powerful. That’s another good driver of interest and a thing that keeps people coming back to the apps.”

Still, users are already telling stories on other networks, and might be loath to saddle themselves with another outlet where they have to post news. That’s why Felton is so focused on automating the journaling process. The less people have to do, the more inclined they’ll be to use the apps. And more people getting into quantified self is what could jump it from being a niche hobby to a mainstream thing.

How Felton’s “Random Sampling” Reporter App Works

Even for the most slovenly couch potato, there is far too much activity in one’s life to ever possibly record everything. But like a diet or a workout regimen, consistency is key to keeping up the habit; people feel they’re getting an incomplete picture if they somehow miss the opportunity to collect data on themselves--say, when they forget to journal, or they leave their Fitbit at home.

The concept for the prototype of his Reporter iPhone app, Felton says, was based on sampling people throughout the day, and building an overall picture of life patterns over time.

“Datum is about having this stimuli in your mind like, ‘Oh, I just had a coffee, I need to record it’ so it’s a user driven cue,” he says. Instead of journaling, the Reporter app gives the user prompts every once in a while: What are you doing right now?

“It’s randomized, so in that sense it’s actually sampling you, and I feel like this is valuable for getting at a bunch of different dimensions of data that can be really hard to just track in a complete way,” says Felton.

Once the app has been random-sampling you for a while, it begins to get a sense of the patterns of your life. You can connect other pieces of information the app may not be aware of, to give it an even clearer picture. “So, listing who you’re with, or listing what you’re wearing, or what tool you’re using, or what your mood is” are just some of the possible ways the user could augment the random-sample approach, says Felton.

“And because it’s on the phone, it can be tied to the metadata that it’s gathering--things like weather and location,” he says. “It’s also pulling in a couple other things, like number of photos that you took since the last time it was activated, and how loud it is in your environment… I think it solves a completeness problem, which can be a pitfall of some of these products, where like if you don’t do it for a day and you feel like it’s wrecked. With this, because it is just so random, you enter it when you can or you know, you ignore it for a day, and it’s fine--it keeps on randomly pinging you, and the more you enter, the more you get out of it.”

Felton’s new mobile app, under development now, will be ready for public release in the next few months.

Felton has been publishing his Personal Annual Reports since 2006, when he got the idea from using Last.fm. “It just tracks everything that you’ve listened to, and I think for me that was really inspiring to see you could have almost like complete knowledge of an entire domain of activity, and I think I just wanted more... the Last.fm equivalent of everything I ate, everything I drank, and what are the interesting stories you could tell based on that data,” he says.

“After building that up for a couple years, I started to get interested in more esoteric things--things that were harder to know,” like trying to get at his mood, one of many metrics for which self-report data isn’t always that accurate.

Felton used his prototype app in his most recent Annual Report, and said he “actually [felt] like overall, that report gave me the most depth of knowledge with the least commitment to tracking of any of them,” which, of course, is the whole point of the Reporter project. We’ll write about Felton and his project again when Reporter app launches later this quarter.

[Image: Flickr user Bill Selak]