Beyond Self-Tracking for Health - Quantified Self

The Quantified Self is an online community dedicated to collecting personal data about health, habits, productivity, and more with the aim of using the information for self-improvement. The premise of the philosophy is self-improvement through tracking and analyzing of personal data. Participants include highly motivated fitness enthusiasts, tech-savvy gadget geeks, product developers, patients suffering from chronic disease, and others. Not all projects are related to health, but for this blog it is the health studies that I am focusing on.

The movement was started as a blog in 2007 by two editors from Wired Magazine. It has grown vigorously since then. The Quantified Self now sponsors an international conference and has participants in over 30 countries. The web site, quantifiedself.com, offers discussion forums, a guide for self-tracking apps and other useful technology, recommended reading lists, articles and videos highlighting the work of self-quantifiers. Community members share their experiences a local meeting called a Show & Tell.

The Quantified Self differs from more mainstream self-tracking and patient engagement in a number of ways. The self-studies undertaken by members of QS are generally more complex and can involve intensive data collection over a number of years. This data can be derived from consumer devices and apps, but much of it is highly individual and requires manual entry in spreadsheets or tools developed by the person conducting the study. For example, a weight loss study may include collecting information from an activity tracker and diet app, but might also include tracking life events such as travel, major life events like a new job or marriage, etc. to see how they correlate to fluctuations in weight.

A major component of most of these projects is the analysis and visualization of the data to look for patterns that may answer the question the subject is trying to understand. Looking at the stories posted to the web site, one sees that there are very few, if any, commercial available tools for this purpose. A common project undertaken along with self-study is the development of a means of graphing data. The ability of many in QS to develop their own software and to use complex technical tools is another differentiator from most people outside QS.

The variety of QS projects is enormous. They can range from weight loss studies to complex analysis of triggers for chronic disease. They are not confined to health, but also include personal productivity, mood study, or performance. The studies tend to be highly personal using data that is often specific to a single individual such as attendance at sports events, particular combinations of food, or unique symptoms.

QS is more about self-discovery and self-management than engagement with providers. While some may be working with physicians, particularly those dealing with chronic disease, most of the work is done outside the clinical arena.

Most people are not going to have the dedication to or interest in doing the extensive tracking that is a characteristic of the Quantified Self, nor do they have the technical skills to put complex data together to derive knowledge. However, the principles espoused by the group and some of what they do are leading to the quantified self (lower case) – something that may have more utility and meaning to a wider public, moving self-tracking slowly into the mainstream.

QS has been at the vanguard of the move to self-empowerment in healthcare. They have shown what is possible to accomplish with self-tracking. In addition, the group includes developers of apps, devices and other products that they hope will turn into viable business products. In QS forums, developers of such tools sometimes recruit beta testers. QS is a particularly good place to look for testers because these people are usually willing to spend a lot of time working on projects.

By observing where members have to develop or cobble together solutions themselves, it is possible to see where gaps in current technology lie and where more work needs to be done.

By sharing their self-improvement through data and analysis journeys, Quantified Self participants encourage and inspire each other. Their stories can encourage and inspire the rest of us too. To learn more about the Quantified Self and to read about the projects its members have done, check out quantifiedself.com. The “What We Are Reading” lists are an excellent source of articles and resources on all aspects of self-tracking, ownership of personal data, and taking control of those data and what is done with them. QS forums are full of the issues facing patient empowerment and the collection and use of data by individuals looking to take charge of their lives and their health.

Recent posts of interest or that are typical of QS projects related to health. It is important to remember that these of studies based on one person, not the hundreds that would be included in a clinical trial. While the conclusions reached may or may not be relevant beyond the individual, their projects may inspire you to devise something of your own.

Keywords: 
quantified self, self-tracking, patient engagement