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The Quantified Self: Data Gone Wild?

September 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Take a look at these new technologies that allow people to keep track and quantify every detail of their daily lives. It's a growing movement called “quantified self.” The personal data gathered is often health-related, but there are applications to measure productivity and time spent in REM sleep. Is this data gone wild?
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HARI SREENIVASAN: This is actually how 41-year-old Bob Troia sometimes sleeps – with this gadget on his head.  So when he wakes up, he can see not only how long he slept … but also information so detailed he knows when – and how long – he was in rem sleep, light sleep, and deep sleep. 

BOB TROIA: I tend to have a little point around 6am where my dog tends to bark at somebody. Then I’ll fall back asleep.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  And this is just the start of Troia’s data-filled morning routine.

Before he even gets out of bed, Troia uses an IPhone app to take his pulse.  He then weighs himself … takes his blood pressure … and his blood glucose level. 

BOB TROIA: I have an elevated risk for type 2 diabetes.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Next: a finger-tapping exercise to test cognitive performance.

And all throughout the day, a monitor on his chest and a band on his wrist collect data about his heart rate, sweat levels and skin temperature…so he can keep his stress levels in check.        

BOB TROIA: So I can look down at my phone at any point in the day and see, kind of, how stressed am I.

HARI SREENIVASAN:   All the data he collects is stored in a computer program, smartphone app or in a spreadsheet.  The point of all this tracking and monitoring?  Troia, the CEO of a marketing firm who lives in Brooklyn, says in addition to keeping diabetes at bay, he just wants to stay healthy.

BOB TROIA: I think as you get older– you know, once, I think, really, when I turned 40, for me was– you start looking ahead.

HARI SREENIVASAN:    So, I think by this sort of idea for me is doing what I can take to ensure that I have this sort of long, enjoyable life. 

Troia’s tracking and testing may seem extreme, but he’s definitely not alone.  He’s part of a growing movement called “quantified self.”  People tracking and quantifying all kinds of personal data, often health-related. 

Sixty percent of American adults track their weight, diet or exercise routine, and millions are now using technology to do it.  There are thousands of health and fitness smartphone apps and it’s estimated the wearable device industry could soon grow to more than a billion dollars – including these bands and bits that track everything from steps and calories to heart rate and sleep quality. 

DAVID POGUE: It’s about self- improvement, I think. 

HARI SREENIVASAN: David Pogue is a technology columnist for the New York Times and host of NOVA ScienceNOW.  He says self-quantifiers range from the average person just trying to lose weight…. To the hard-core like Bob Troia. Pogue says these wearable devices can be powerful motivators.

DAVID POGUE: I just that awareness that you’re being watched and your activity level is being monitored leads you to get more activity.  You take more stairs; you get off a subway stop earlier because they reward you with little lights and graphs for doing well.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Pogue says many devices also let you compare your data with other users.

DAVID POGUE: So there’s– an almost competitive element to it.  It’s fitness through shame.  

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now what is it about that baseline sort of competition?  Like, it’s an almost like an animal instinct.  Why do we respond to that?  

DAVID POGUE:  I mean everybody behaves differently when they’re on stage versus when they’re off stage.  You want to be your best self.  You want to put your best foot forward.  And that’s what sharing your data with a few other people does for you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is this a grand narcissism of, you know, the internet age, or technology saying, “I’ll just give you the tools to measure every nook and cranny of your life.”

DAVID POGUE: It’s absolutely narcissism.  Or more healthfully, ego.  It’s studying yourself as an interesting topic in ways that you couldn’t study yourself before, I mean, this is just giving you self-awareness into previously invisible aspects of your life.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Like something known as heart rate variability.

DAVID POGUE: So in a stressful situation your pulse may inversely go up but your HRV goes down and over time like a higher HRV is just a general sense of your body being in that better natural state.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  He knows what he means. Troia estimates he’s spent around $20,000 over the last few years on devices, programs and tests.  And it’s not just about health.  He’s also got a program that quantifies all the different ways he spends time on his computer, and quantifies which parts of the day he’s most productive. 

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, you know, people are going listen to you and say, “this guy’s extreme.  He’s quantifying all this stuff.  Do you think you’re extreme?

BOB TROIA: No, not necessarily.  You know, I don’t– I think if you talk to a lot of my friends or family or coworkers– it’s not something that they even really can notice or tell that I’m doing.   

HARI SREENIVASAN: There’s actually a community for dedicated self-quantifiers like Bob Troia, across the U.S. and around the world, who gather often to share experiences and, of course, data.  At this recent gathering in New York City, which had a wait-list to get in, the main event was a show and tell.

SPEAKER AT CONFERENCE: I ate a lot of butter here so there was a bump up

HARI SREENIVASAN:  But these self-quantifiers aren’t just sharing information with each other.  Users are uploading massive quantities of personal data to the servers of companies that make these gadgets, programs and smartphone apps. 

BOB TROIA: It’s a wireless scale so what it’s going to do is transmit my data to a server.

HARI SREENIVASAN:   Bob Troia says there’s a lot of discussion in the quantified self community right now about who owns the data and what can be done with it.  But at the end of the day, Troia says he’s not too concerned.  After all, the risks are small compared to his goals – everything from preventing diabetes, to optimizing his time.

BOB TROIA: Personally, like, my goal is to basically be– an optimal human being in every aspect of my life.