Strapping a small plastic box full of electronics to your forehead each night is a bedtime ritual that is neither comfortable nor natural. As nightwear goes, it can only be described as a passion killer. However, the prize it offers is increasingly sought after by a fast-growing group of data addicts known as “lifeloggers.”
The Zeo records your brain activity as you sleep. It then syncs via Bluetooth with your smartphone to produce a graph for you to peruse in the morning. Over the course of a few weeks, it has allowed me to ascertain that it takes, on average, 15 minutes to go to sleep once my head hits the pillow, that I enjoy only two hours of “deep sleep” each night and that, in total, I usually achieve seven full hours of sleep, which involves around three hours of rapid eye movement — or “dreaming.”
I admit being curious to know this information, but beyond that, I’m not sure what I’m expected to do with such data, other than, say, compare it with other people. How can I use it to improve my sleep quality — other than to know that wearing a plastic box on your head at night can be, let’s say, disruptive?
However, for lifeloggers, this is only the start of the journey of self-discovery. Their motivation is to create as many data streams about themselves as possible so that they can be collated and analyzed to provide new insights and revelations about their lives.
Lifelogging is nothing new. Keeping a diary, using a pedometer or weighing yourself each day are some of the many ways that previous generations have logged their lives. However, over the past decade, as digital technology has become increasingly plugged in to the Internet, so lifelogging has grown in popularity and significance. Perhaps the best-known practitioner is Microsoft Research researcher Gordon Bell, who, via his decade-long MyLifeBits project, has attempted to capture all his interactions — e-mails, telephone calls, photographs, etc — so that he can store “his whole life” on a single laptop. It was a challenge first suggested by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who, in his 1996 book The Road Ahead, predicted that it would not be long before we would be able to recall via a computer anything we had read, seen or heard during our lives.
At present, lifelogging is largely limited to those who are interested in their health and fitness. Clip-on gadgets such as the Fitbit and Motorola’s Motoactv — which can record the number of strides you take each day, the steps you climb, the calories you burn and your location — help users to monitor their activity to a degree of accuracy that was previously unobtainable. I have been trialing both devices and I can now break down my typical week to see when I’m busiest. Clue: not the daytime hours, when I’m largely sitting in front of a computer. Take-home message: Be more active.
However, I already knew that. Where lifelogging carries far more potential — and risks — is when different data streams are layered on top of each other. So, if we add our physical activity data to our travelcard data, to our debit card use, to our Internet activity and so on, we gain a deeper understanding of our habits and decision-making. To then act on this information in the pursuit of improvement is known in lifelogging circles as “self-hacking.”
“It’s the data mash-ups that bring context and insight,” says Frank Bentley, a research scientist at the Motorola Mobility Applied Research Center near Chicago, who also teaches a course on mobile communication at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “They help to move it away from vague information. For example, when I analyzed myself, I found that I’m happier when I’m busiest and happier when it’s warmer. I now have a quantitative, statistically significant view on my happiness.”
Bentley says that all this data could have a profound, as yet unseen, impact on healthcare.
“Governments could make informed policy decisions if common patterns were found across whole populations,” Bentley says. “If clusters of illness and symptoms were found, it could lead to the very sophisticated targeting of treatment. The data will also be very beneficial to medical insurance companies in its aggregate form.”
And this is where privacy concerns enter the equation. As smartphones become ubiquitous, so the data streams will multiply exponentially. And because they sit in our pockets or bags, they are the nearest thing yet to having your own personal black box recorder. However, who controls or even owns the data you create as you get on with your day? Who else has access to it? Do you have any say over how it is viewed or used by others?
Adriana Lukas is the founder and convener of the London Quantified Self Meetup Group, which meets every two months to discuss the potential and implications of lifelogging.
She is excited by such technological advances, but warns about the abuse and misuse of data.
“There are certainly benefits, but you must be careful,” she says. “The fight for our datasets has already started. The aggregation of all this data is where the value lies. Security and privacy of all this data is crucial. It is very valuable.”
Most smartphone users are still naive about how the data they are creating is being used, Lukas says.
“The default setting is that data are shared. This is wrong. Users are asked to sync with Facebook. People who use these apps are thinking about their health, not about data privacy, but all these data are very valuable. More often than not, you don’t even get to own the data you are generating. Most of it is stored on client-side data servers. This is turning into a huge business. Companies are circling at the moment,” she says.
When it was revealed last year that the iPhone was secretly recording data about the user’s movements, there was outrage. Users felt violated and Apple quickly moved to fix the “fault.” However, Lukas says this should be a warning to us that we still know little about how the data we create might be being used by others to better “understand” us.
“This is truly personal data,” she says. “You should be given the explicit ‘opt in’ choice to share it, not simply to opt out. We need much better standards of data literacy. People really need educating on the importance of all this.”
Lukas fears a “data dystopia”: “Imagine if Tesco supermarket got hold of your Fitbit data. Think what they could do with it, alongside your Tesco Clubcard data. We are now swimming in data streams, but try claiming any of them back for yourself. For example, try to search your own Twitter timeline backward. It’s near impossible, yet you created all that data and content. We are being tricked out of our own data online. Without us, it wouldn’t even exist. We should be able to analyze it on our own terms and own it.”
Not-for-profit organizations such as European Digital Rights and the London-based Open Rights Group are now campaigning for “digital civil rights,” including the right to data privacy and ownership.
The Open Rights Group, for example, says that while the digital age has the “capacity to bring us greater democracy, transparency and new creative and social possibilities,” it means “our freedoms are also under attack in the digital world: from governments and vested business interests.”
Bentley is more relaxed about such fears, though. He believes as long as people keep on top of the data they create, the benefits — particularly health benefits — mean lifelogging will quickly become integrated into all our lives.
“Logging the food we eat is an area that needs development, but could bring big advantages,” he says. “Image-recognition software is being worked on so it can recognize what food is being eaten. Other ideas include ‘jaw counters,’ which monitor how many times you chew your food. ‘Protein-onomics’ is the analysis of blood and urine. We will take samples and send them off to be studied with the resulting data constantly adding to our knowledge of ourselves. DNA profiles will soon be in the mix, too. Working out ways to visualize this data is the next challenge. Lots of people in the world can’t read a graph or understand correlations.”
To avoid becoming a gift to hypochondriacs and quacks, this data will need curating by healthcare professionals.
“Information is not knowledge,” Albert Einstein said.
Quite how willing general practitioners, for example, will be to get involved is unclear.
However, personal data about each of us is being created, whether we choose to add to it or not. Ignoring it means we risk not being as “efficient” as those who lap it up. In March, the scientist and author Stephen Wolfram blogged about how he had analyzed a decade’s worth of his e-mails, computer use and telephone calls. By doing so, he gained surprising — some might say trivial — insights into his habits. (For example, 7 percent of the keys he typed were backspaces.) However, it was the potential of lifelogging that excited him most.
“As personal analytics develops, it’s going to give us a whole new dimension to experiencing our lives,” he wrote. “At first it all may seem quite nerdy. But it won’t be long before it’s clear how incredibly useful it all is — and everyone will be doing it, and wondering how they could have ever gotten by before. And wishing they had started sooner, and hadn’t ‘lost’ their earlier years.”