This a summary/review of the article “The Data-Driven Life” which can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/magazine/02self-measurement-t.html?_r=1
The author is Gary Wolf of wired mag. The article sets out by documenting several “geeks” who meticulously document many aspects of their day to day existence: diet, mood, location, etc. They do this using recent technology and usually upload the information into the cloud, and even to public websites. Scientists have been doing similar things for hundreds of years (though not strictly about themselves). Could these habits actually serve a useful purpose?
He then traces some of the history of this recent phenomenon, such as personal information gathering sites like Medhelp.com and foursquare.com. The Nintendo Wii fit toy which tracks information about performance level for a variety of physically demanding tasks. Also worth noting is the site http://www.kk.org/quantifiedself/ run by author.
Recently it has become possible to track physical information with biometric sensors. Wearable movement trackers are made by several new companies (and by some traditional companies). The motivations behind tracking vary. Sometimes it is physical training for competitive athletes. Other times it is simple self-improvement. Sometimes the reasons are strictly medical, such as a diabetic tracking their sugar levels. There are now sleep trackers (made by Zeo) so it is no longer necessary to go to a sleep clinic to get detailed information on sleep. The Nike + tracker is worn by 2,500,000 runners.
There are many anecdotal stories about the positive effects of tracking. Initially information gatherers shared information via cell phone, now it is ubiquitous on the web and in the cloud. People go beyond monitoring movement to monitor mood and diet and focus level. One woman, using CureTogether, a self-tracking health site, learned about tryptophan, a common amino acid available as a dietary supplement. She took the tryptophan, and her insomnia went away and her concentration scores also improved. Another tracker discovered that three tablespoons of flaxseed oil helped him concentrate. An aspiring movie director discovered viewing bad movies affected his outlook about being successful in his chosen career. The LENA language tracker, which tracks language development in infants, has helped parents discover they don’t talk as much as the believed to their infants. Someone concerned about becoming an alcoholic utilized the site drinkingdiary.com to gain self-mastery over his impulse to drink. A researcher at the University of Oslo automatically calls people who are trying to quit, asking them every day whether they’ve smoked. When the answer is yes, a recorded voice delivers an encouraging message: All is well, take it easy, try again. A bipolar sufferer built a self-tracking system to help manage his feelings. This automatically sends e-mail with mood-tracking scores to a few select friends. His life was changed radically. If he got a dip, his friends contacted him to support him.
The monitoring fad in many cases serve a useful purpose. Self monitoring encompasses a number of areas: recording of data, sharing it with the general public so it can be used as part of a database, sharing it with select friends so they can be aware of your state, sending gentle automated reminders, garnering information from others. All this would not have been possible a few years ago, because technology didn’t exist for tracking, and the web did not exist for storing and sharing. Before reading this article, I doubted tracking was much more than an idiosyncrasy. Now I’m persuaded it serves a useful purpose and will become more common in the future.