Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Cult Of Numbers.

Quantified Self 2011
Image by Bytemarks via Flickr

A large man in an orange shirt is hopping up and down on one leg at the front of the hall explaining how the exercises had no effect on his sleep patterns. A researcher from Liverpool tells how he learned about the effects on his body of calorie-laden sandwiches, drinking sessions and Christmas feasting by monitoring his heart rate non-stop for a year. Elsewhere speakers with Parkinson's disease, chronic social anxiety and back problems explain how tracking their personal data helped ease their symptoms.

Welcome to the sometimes wacky and often intriguing world of the Quantified Self, an eclectic band of hackers, geeks, fitness freaks, patients and early adopters that, from its birth in California in 2008, has grown into a global movement of more than 5,000 members in 11 countries. Last weekend 260 delegates gathered in Amsterdam to share their experiences at the first Quantified Self Europe conference.

In science, politics, medicine and many other spheres, data is routinely collected to fine-tune performance. The realm that has so far evaded the cult of numbers is our personal lives. The idea of someone keeping spreadsheets of data on their mood, health, diet, physical location, personal productivity and sleep patterns might in the past have attracted a certain amount of scorn.

That is changing and fast, if the self-quantifying vanguard is to be believed. Smartphones are already packed with sensors, from cameras and GPS to accelerometers and gyroscopes. A growing range of cheap consumer gadgets aimed specifically at self-trackers is being launched, such as the Zeo, which monitors sleep cycles, and the fitbit, which measures physical activity and estimates calorie burn.

At the Amsterdam gathering, Robin Barooah, 39, an English software and product designer who lives in Oakland, California, spoke about his experiment in which he claims to have lost 20kg of his original 100kg weight by writing either the word "lethargic" or "energised" on a flash card at 3pm every day for 18 months, depending on how he felt. He puts it down to improved self-awareness.

"I gradually noticed that my perception of some foods shifted from thinking they were delicious to starting to feel their heaviness and the effects they were going to have on me. The act of paying greater attention has an effect on your behaviour." {Read on}