Oxymorons of the Quantified Self:
Personal Informatics and Big Data

October 2012

The momentum of interest in personal informatics within the interaction/service design community is increasing in relation to the development of new services that facilitate the process of collecting, analysing, and presenting personal data. The domain has grown in recent times due to the availability and cost of existing and new sensor technologies, mobility of platforms that run these technologies, ubiquity of access to information brought by the internet, and improvements and popularity in the field of infographics. This is all aligned with the increase in interest of future scenarios and opportunities under, the now mainstream terms, “big data” and “internet of things”. A large number of the services in the personal informatics fall into monitoring and understanding patterns in relation to wellbeing, health, and misc. activities. This ranges from tracking your emotional changes within a defined period, to understanding how what you eat affects your ability to sleep or loose weight resulting in potential behavior change.“To this day, people still strive to obtain self-knowledge. One way to obtain self-knowledge is to collect information about oneself – ones behaviour, habits, and thoughts – and reflect on them.” [Li et. al, 2010]Recently, the term Interpersonal informatics [Bales, 2011] has been defined as an extension of the informatics domain into the realms of understanding “why we are, who we are”. An example, services that help individuals to pinpoint together the most successful medical treatment based on current and past member usage. It is the method of using social services to share our data in the hope to gather awareness of how those around them affect their habits, beliefs, and health.“It’s natural that we would want to reclaim some of this power: to look outward to the cloud, as well as inward toward the psyche, in our quest to figure ourselves out…. Electronic trackers have no feelings. They are emotionally neutral, but this very fact makes them powerful mirrors of our own values and judgments” – Gary Wolf [Wolf, 2011]Furthermore, pockets of individuals in mainstream culture seem to be extremely excited regarding the promises that personal informatics may bring. In 2007, Gary Wolf [http://aether.com] started the group, “The Quantified Self” [http://quantifiedself.com] . This group now exists in 70+ cities around the world. Quantified Self members meet and discuss regularly their own experiments in collecting data about themselves on various activities, and even body functions. They create software to help collect data, hack or use various sensors, even manually record to the minuet details of their lives. Some members have gone far as to use their insights and bodies as experimental platforms that enable them to “body hack” for best results. These insights and experiments are shared on the group’s blog and special events. In some cases, you could liken some members interest to an obsessive compulsive disorder. For others, they are just “data geeks”. Most of the members (even sponsors) are there for health and wellbeing benefits. From an artistic, cultural perspective, Ellie Harrison, an artist from the UK, has touched on the implicit ridiculous nature of such groups and the dangers of becoming self-obsessed in this data-driven world. Her work, now published in a book, examines an obsessive compulsive look at data collection and the process of rehabilitation through introspection mediated from producing her work “Confessions of a recovering data collector”.There is a range of services that gather data regarding every digital trace you leave in your digital life without you being actively conscious of the data that is being collected. And then there are the “manually initiated” data collecting services such as MIT’s mycrocosm data sharing service, or Daytum.com that enable you to feed into them data sets on whatever your heart desires to be traced and visualised.The big data prophets imagine streams of data regarding all aspects of life and environment to give us the ability to provide insights into becoming more efficient, solving problems and, in general, the ability to streamline just about anything. From pinpointing such areas of an urban space that lead to more heart diseases, or the ability to redesign public transport services based on patterns of usage. Design thinkers, such as John Thackara, [http://www.metropolismag.com/story/20051219/john-thackara-cultural-theory] have advocated benefits in the ability to perform what is known as Macroscoping: form individual analyst confronting an important but complex aggregation of facts from nature. The ability to macroscope an area of self enables us to get new insights to change our understanding of ourselves and the surrounding world. Beyond the instrumental use of personal informatics.

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