By Vanessa Naylon
Last weekend I attended the 2012 Quantified Self conference in Palo Alto, a gathering of “self-trackers”: people who collect data about themselves and conduct their own experiments (where n almost always equals 1).
600 people attended the conference, which is in its second year and emphasizes personal experiences over honed expertise (though there was plenty of that, too). Speakers were chosen for their ability to tell compelling personal stories on a variety of topics. One of the main tracks of the conference focused on “Show and Tell” presentations, where speakers discussed their own experiences and answered the three Prime Questions:
- What did you do?
- How did you do it?
- What did you learn?
For example, Robin Barooah, a coffee drinker since childhood, decided to gradually quit coffee and discovered that, for him, it both inhibited his productivity and protected against depression. It was the latter effect that got him drinking coffee again.
How much self can a self-tracker track?
There’s a lot you can track about yourself. The top contenders for most people are usually weight, sleep, and mood, but anything personal that changes over time can be tracked. Here’s a short list of examples I heard at the Quantified Self conference:
- caffeine intake
- heart rate
- cognitive skill
- distance walked every day
- geographic location
- facial expressions
I tried my best to come up with a full list of trackable personal metrics and soon got overwhelmed by possibilities:
- hydration level
- money saved
- ambient noise level
- light exposure
- vocabulary size
As Gary Wolf, one of the conference hosts, said, “Personal data can be big data. Maybe there is no such thing as ‘all the data.’ It’s data all the way down.”
As you might expect from a group of self-trackers, people brought forward many fitness and personal health ideas. The medical professionals who attended discussed a few higher-level, visionary possibilities: creating databases for crowdsourced genomics codebreaking or the role a “quant coach” could play to enrich the doctor-patient relationship.
One of my favorite stories from Quantified Self 2012 was Sacha Chua’s custom tracking dashboard. Chua encouraged self-trackers to build tracking dashboards to help them not just collect data but to make better decisions every day. Her own open-source dashboard helps her do things like keep track of books she’s checked out of the library and how often she’s worn her clothes. At first, it took her 2 hours to photograph her clothes, and she used a color picker plus a color theory algorithm to create new ideas for what to wear. Now she focuses on “load balancing” her clothes — using the dashboard to help her remember not to wear the same things over and over. Check out the source code on Github.
I’ll share my favorite ideas and recommendations from Quantified Self 2012 in another post. If you’d like to learn more about Quantified Self or what happened at the conference, I can share more information and examples. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.