Tracking the Self-Trackers: Growth of the Quantified Self Movement, Part 1

When we think about Quantified Self, we naturally think about numbers. But let’s take a look at how we “think” about numbers?

What are the missing numbers?

2, 4, ?, ?.

This is not a test in math skills, but actually thinking style, according to Gary Wolf, one of the founders of the Quantified Self movement. Wolf uses this quiz to illustrate futurist Ray Kurzweil’s thinking in a fascinating post written in 2009, “Becoming More Human.”

“Kurzweil had a special confidence that grew from a habit of mind he’d been cultivating for years: He thought exponentially. What are the missing numbers? Many people will say 6 and 8. This suggests a linear function. But some will say the missing numbers are 8 and 16. This suggests an exponential function. (Of course, both answers are correct.)” – Gary Wolf

Are you thinking linearly or exponentially?

I have been talking to people I know who are actively self-tracking to learn more about how they think about the what they are tracking. Self-tracker and Permamarks founder, Matisse VerDuyn, successfully lost 80 pounds over the past year through self-tracking. Do active self-trackers “think differently?” I asked him to take the quiz. Interestingly, Matisse pointed out, “There are many possible answers,” and he offered up these solutions:

• 2, 4, 8, 16      • 2, 4, 6, 8      • 2, 4, 6, 10       • 2, 4, 8, 7       • 2, 4, 4, 2       • 2, 4, 7, 12  

Divergent thinking gives one the ability to come up with many possible solutions. Innovative self-trackers benefit from thinking divergently, and also exponentially – by asking big questions. It is fascinating to learn how, and what, people are self-tracking from the many videos from QS Meetups and conferences throughout the world.

“Here at the Quantified Self, we want to know what these new tools of self-tracking are good for, and we want to create an environment where this question can be explored on a human level.” – Gary Wolf

Association Rule Mining with Foursquare and Withings

In this talk recorded at the Bay Area QS Meetup, John Schrom demonstrates divergent thinking by applying  “association rule mining” to his data. Association rule mining is typically used by supermarket retailers looking for patterns of association for items purchased in one sales transaction. John looked for patterns of associations from locations and his weight gain or loss.

Checking in for Better Health by John Schrom from Ernesto Ramirez on Vimeo.

“An association rule is an implication, taking the form of an itemset (e.g., {milk, diapers}) that implies an additional itemset (e.g., {milk, diapers} => {beer}). This example can be interpreted as: customers who purchase both milk and diapers are also likely to purchase beer. This forms the basis for how some supermarkets run loss leader promotions and targeted coupons.” – John Schrom

Schrom collected his weight data via a Withings scale, and geolocation history from Foursquare. The question he explored: “What kind of places do I visit when I’m gaining or losing weight?”

Foursquare Plus Withings

“I wrote an R function to iteratively pull my foursquare checkins, and then I manually downloaded my weight data from Withings.” – John Schrom

Schrom calculated 51 weeks worth of data. He lost weight in 17 of them, and gained weight in 22. He looked for association rules to apply to specific venues, and identified those that contributed to weight gain. He is now looking to change his habits. You can read more details and musings from John here.

“To be clear, these rules don’t prove causality. The concept generally seems sound: the places that you frequent impact your health.”  – John Schrom

What else are you self-tracking?

Tracking health, fitness, sleep, mood and productivity are the most popular activities for self-trackers. But as the QS movement is growing, so are the possibilities. We will look at innovative ways people are self-tracking, and how QS is moving into the mainstream, in Part 2 of this 4-part series: “Growth of the Quantified Self Movement.”

“We are fortunate to live at a time when technology is enabling the exploration of solutions. Suddenly, we are all scientists, and our discoveries are limited only by our imaginations.” – Mark Moschel, “Quantified Self, Ultimate Beginner’s Guide”


Growth of Quantified Self

Started in 2008, the Quantified Self movement is now global. Innovators and visionaries, data geeks and developers, attend and organize 133  Quantified Self Meetups in 103 cities around the world. The next annual Quantified Self Global Conference will be held October 10-11, 2013, in San Francisco.

Quantified Self Meetups

Tell us about your or someone else’s interesting self-tracking project in the comments!

Look for the next installment of this series by Angela Dunn on Monday, August 19th, as she explores the “Growth of QS Movement.” You can follow Angela Dunn on Twitter at @healthiscool for health innovation, and @blogbrevity on future trends and technology, or Google+.

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HealthIsCool is a writer and trends analyst. She writes about health innovation, wearable tech, the Internet of Things (IoT), new health technologies, and future trends. Her latest trends research includes: The Rise of Wearable Technology and Google's Ambitions in Healthcare. Follow on Twitter at @HealthIsCool.

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