My Data, Myself

Most of the thinking about the age of “data” is top-down. By that I mean, data is being conceived first and foremost as information that is being collected by businesses and institutions from and about people. The controversies around privacy and even about personal control of data  are still concerned mainly with the intelligence about people gleaned by third parties. And these institutions are often driven by motives of profit or surveillance. But there is another aspect of data we are only beginning to glimpse via the first wearable and sensor-laden gadgets. Now data is not only personal,  it is aimed at self-improvement, not just institutional intelligence or business interests separate from ourselves. Now data is really personal.

I recently discovered a group of what I might call personal data hobbyists that actually goes back to 2007 and 2008, who are thinking about the implications and uses of data for self-improvement. They gather around the label “quantified self” enthusiasts, and their efforts are well worth watching. appears to be home base for the group, which is holding a conference in early October in San Francisc,  and has chapters with meetups in major cities worldwide.



If you can call this a movement, it is characterized by a very individualistic approach to data. Members are fascinated by the ways in which the digital data a person casts off can be harnessed for better personal understanding. This is small data with a purpose. Many of their projects involve self-monitoring: everything from the usual fitness data and caloric intake to measuring a lot of patterns of behavior like moods, sleep, word usage, etc.

The idea here is much the same as in big data projects. Somehow applying creative analytics to a range of personal data can reveal aspects of oneself that were not otherwise apparent. “Our aim is to help people get meaning out of their personal data,” say QuantifiedSelf Labs co-founders Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly at the site.

The self-tracking experiments outlined at the site include high-carb dieting and its impact on key health indicators. There is another that is tracking differences in activities between two twins. Another member tracked his own reading habits over four years. And of course there is a lot of weight monitoring going on. One of the forum members has a site called where he has put up a dashboard of his own summer activity: from health to sickness levels, how quickly he gets tired, how quickly he ate meals, how long he sleeps, and how often he gets to bed on time, and even how diverse his daytime experiences are.

There is a great deal of discussion on these sites about both the inputs and the outputs of this data flow. Since the ambition of many of these hobbyists is to measure some of the more amorphous aspects of their lives, a constant question is how to quantify things like mood. On the other end, there is some debate within the group about whether this pursuit is all about gaining insight and self-knowledge or about self-control and behavioral modification.

Whatever the motives, methods and goals, that a Quantified Self passion has developed at all is fascinating, and that it is a bottom-up movement is even more telling. I gather simply from reading around in these sites and forums that there is a great deal of pride here in taking control for oneself the tools of quantification and monitoring that more often are used by others to track, categorize, and profit. Just as pamphleteers of the 19th century, the underground press of the 1960s and the blogosphere of the 21st century answered corporately owned mass media with insurgent media and messages, so too could personal data analytics be seen as a grassroots resistance to the organizations and purposes usually associated with data “collection.” If marketers want to glean how they might leverage the data revolution  to actually serve their customers and not just tag, track and target them, this is a space to watch.

1 comment about "My Data, Myself".
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  1. Sadie Marshall from O&S Media, February 8, 2014 at 1:53 p.m.

    A good article, thought provoking stuff!

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