Last week I attended QS15, Quantified Self’s annual conference and Expo as a part of my role as the new Associate Editor for Quantified Self Labs. My mandate was simple: attend breakout sessions and show-and-tell talks from the Quantified Self community with the goal of finding some interesting people to interview, and some interesting stories to tell. Having never attended a local Quantified Self meetup before, I didn’t really know what to expect of these three days. I figured there would be a lot of numbers and graphs and wearables – lots of wearables. And while some of what I encountered wasn’t far off from those preconceptions, I came away with a much different feeling about the entire Quantified Self movement than when the conference began.
To the uninformed, Quantified Self may seem like an elitist group of self-trackers. The “worried well”. A bunch of people comparing fitness tracking applications on the latest and greatest piece of technology. Spending an hour with these people reveals the truth that this is so much more than monitoring your heart rate on an Apple Watch. As I see it, the core philosophy behind Quantified Self starts with a question, usually about yourself. From that question, you must identify what data you think will help answer that question, and what means are required to capture that data. Once you have enough data to glean some kind of insight, you can either revisit the question, the desired data, or the data capturing methods and start the cycle over again. This process of question, data, track, learn, question, data, track, learn can go on for as long as you want.
This of course leads to the rabbit hole of data overload. Especially in this digital, wearable age, it’s easy to get lost in the data collection portion of the cycle I described without thinking about the why, or really, the who. I’m just as guilty of this as the next person. I wear a Fitbit but treat it as a reminder that I’m not active enough instead of a tool to encourage taking the stairs. I have applications like MyFitnessPal installed on my phone, but I’m too embarrassed or afraid to start monitoring my food intake – even though keeping an eye on what and how much I eat is an essential part of managing my diabetes. I could blame my diabetes for this apathy toward self tracking. Because I have to pay attention to numbers and data on a minute-by-minute basis to simply survive, it’s easy to develop tunnel vision and only focus on what I need to get by. But that’s not true, and it’s not fair. The truth is: I think I’m just lazy.
But what I experienced at QS15 was special. These are people who first looked inward for a problem that they felt they could better understand through self tracking and other creative means and then outward to the Quantified Self community to share what they did, why they did it, and what they learned.
Show-and-tell talks were featured throughout the 3-day extravaganza with topics ranging from logging email trends and habits, to tv binge watching insights. I saw talks on menstrual cycles, alcohol consumption, productivity in the workplace, external influences on dreams, and anxiety triggers.
No, not all of these talks resonated with me. And not all of these talks directly inspired me to start my own self tracking experiments. To be honest, it was awfully easy to come away from this entire experience feeling defeated and intimidated. What am I doing with my life? Why haven’t I thought of something this creative? Is there anything in my life worth measuring? I must be the least interesting person at this conference.
But then I return to the basic idea behind Quantified Self. These people wanted to learn something, no matter how small, about themselves, and sought the data and the means to capture that data. Maybe their experiment worked, maybe it didn’t – but they tried. And in trying, maybe they came away with a new respect for how those 10,000 steps make their body feel or how that extra serving of vegetables makes a difference in the morning or how taking the scenic route makes a noticeable improvement on their mood or how caffeine impacts road rage. It doesn’t matter what these people chose to quantify. The possibilities were endless, and the resulting stories they shared were captivating.
As my time during the open Expo session on Day 3 came to a close, I recognized the beginnings of a new theme within the Quantified Self movement: using data to tell a story. Multiple app developers were showing off early versions of software that aggregated data from HealthKit, wearables, and dozens of digital data collection protocols to present a sharable summary of your activity – a story. We’re moving past simply recording steps and tracking weight and looking at how these days and weeks of progress can be turned into something more engaging than a superficial check-in at the gym on Foursquare. I’m not necessarily interested in the fact that you ran two miles today, but I can appreciate seeing that all of your summer running totaled a journey across the state of Texas. Simply capturing the data isn’t enough if we want all of this to grow. We need to build a community around the stories this data can tell.
And through these stories, I expect to see a new revolution in Quantified Self. The stories we share and engage with will influence the new data we want to capture. This new data will spawn new self tracking methods, some digital, others analog. And through these new tools, new stories will emerge that will start that cycle over again.