Peter Durand

In Search of the Perfect Personal Data Collection Application

In Health, Innovation, Journal on April 7, 2009 at 11:00 am
Did Buddha have a scale?

Did Buddha have a scale?

PHOTO: Modern ceramic pop art. Peter Durand (c) copyright 2008

So, anyway, I try to weigh myself every morning.

Like many men approaching the tail end of my 30s, I am trying to lose weight. According to the official BMI calculator, I am obese, defined as BMI 30.0 or greater. Well, barely obese (I am 30 even!).

Alas, I am trying to make a concerted effort to eat right, read up on nutrition, turn down seconds, cut down on a bad pizza and coffee habit… anything to stave off the prospect of aging, developing diabetes, and (God Forbid!) cancer.

Well, you know, anything within reason.

So, how should I reasonably track all these vectors in my life in a way that the results are useful and the process is not onerous? According to an article on the topic, A Perfect Personal Data Collection Application, posted on the data-loving site Flowing Data:

The number of Web applications to collect data and information about yourself continues to grow; if you want to track something, most likely there’s an online tool to do it. This is great – especially since a lot of the applications seem to have a lot of users, which means an interest in data. Whether it is deliberate or not is a different question, but you know, that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that people are taking notice.

The Hawthorne effect describes what happens when others take notice of what you are doing. The very act of observing a situation, changes the behavior within the situation. (Ever had to pee in a cup for a drug test?)

Another fantastic resource for tracking this trend of self-measurement is The Quantified Self.

This project–one of Kevin Kelly‘s special interests–collects diverse form factors and interfaces for personal data collection, whether the need is obvious or unanticipated.

For example, very few of us gather numerical data on our indoor environment, which may actually be more harmful due to high concentrations of volatile organic compound (VOCs). One very inexpensive DIY kit looks like thimble-sized water tower hooked to a circuit board. At less than $15, you can monitor the safety of the indoor environment where (unfortunately) more and more of us spend more and more time.

Personally, I am experimenting with CureTogether and your.flowingdata with gadgets in iGoogle and Twitter to input my weight, sleep patterns, BMI, etc.

However, like most Americans, I trend towards ADHD rather than OCD, leaving much to be desired in my data collection habits.

In the end, for the sake of “patient safety and wellness”, the best tools will need to be ambient, automatic and mobile–especially for care coordination of the elderly who suffer from so many conflicting health conditions, known as multimorbidity, and the unintended effects of taking too many medications, a dangerous situation known as polypharmacy or “pill burden”.

The guy that has figured out how to track every aspect of his life is artist/professor Hasan Elahi who has turned the daily, boring activities of eating, relieving oneself, shopping and going to bed a high art, inspired by his detention by the FBI after 9/11.

Ditto with the work of artist and storyteller Jonathan Harris, especially his Whale Hunt, a multimedia experience that captures his heart rate, the luminous and gory images, and maps it all in interactive colors, emotion and multiple timeline formats.

Plan of the Panopticon, The works of Jeremy Bentham vol. IV, 172-3, pub. 1843 (originally 1791)

Plan of the Panopticon, The works of Jeremy Bentham vol. IV, 172-3, pub. 1843 (originally 1791)

Of course, all this “biodata collectivity” augments fears that we are walking confidently into a brave new world of the Panopticon. Originally a French prison designed in 1785, this penal observatory became the modern hallmark in surveilance, achieving an invisible omniscience by authorities over those imprisoned and observed. The designer, Jeremy Bentham, himself described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

The Devil may well dwell in the details, but God is in the machine.

All of these health tracking tools will ultimately be measured by their effects and outcomes.

Are people made safer–physically, mentally and spiritually? Does it make the complexities of health and technology cheaper in dollars and time invested? Will I lose that weight and dodge the cancer bullet in time to dance at my grandchildren’s wedding?

For now, I am merely trying to breakthrough from being statistically obese to severally overweight!

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  1. Just set up http://healthmanager.mayoclinic.com/ which uses Microsoft’s Health Vault.

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