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Is "Self-tracking" the Secret to Living Better?

Enthusiasts are using a new generation of tools to monitor just about everything about themselves.

Do you know the number of miles you’ve driven over the last five years? Every meal you’ve eaten? The number of browser tabs you’ve had open during the day compared with the amount of sleep you had that night? That’s the kind of data collected by the new generation of self-trackers who descended on the Computer History Museum, in Mountain View, California, for the first annual Quantified Self conference over Memorial Day weekend.

About 400 hackers, programmers, entrepreneurs and health professionals came from across the globe, united by a desire to collect as much data as possible about themselves in order to make informed decisions regarding health, productivity and happiness. (One participant had logged X-rated information on the number of his sexual partners and duration of sexual activities. He went to a session on data visualization looking for an interesting way to illustrate that data.)

The self-tracking movement, which has sprung to life over just the last couple of years, is enabled in large part by both wireless sensing devices and smart phones. Many people already employ smart phone apps to track food intake and fitness, but a new generation of apps also tracks mood, meditation, migraines and other factors.

Beyond the smart phone, low power wireless transmitters are transforming existing objects, such as scales and pedometers, making tracking both effortless and easy to share. A Wi-fi enabled scale automatically tracks your weight and will even tweet the numbers—for those lucky few who really want to share.

Several commercial wearable monitors, such as fitbit and Bodymedia, employ accelerometers to track the wearer’s movement, pairing that with specialized algorithms to calculate calories burned. Data is automatically uploaded to the internet, allowing users to track their progress and compete against each other for the most steps or highest activity levels.

One of my favorite projects was a proposal from Kyle Machulis, robotics engineer and self-described hacker, to figure out what makes programmers write bad code. By tracking programmers as they code, monitoring their computers, chairs, keyboards and perhaps the programmer herself via computer cameras, “then you could look at what was happening when they wrote a bug and see if that happens with other bugs,” he says. Or you could chart the parts of a program that appear to be the least user-friendly, perhaps when users fidget, and see if there was some kind of predictive behavior on the programmer’s part.

While the self-tracking trend is still largely limited to early adopters—technophiles, elite athletes and patients monitoring chronic conditions—the diversity of attendees at the conference highlights just how fast it’s moving into the mainstream.

In one breakout session, a group earnestly discussed the best approaches to self-experimentation and the results of some rather odd experiments: standing on one leg for eight minutes a day leads to better sleep; and eating butter for a better performance on a test of cognitive function.

On the other side of the museum, Ben Rubin, co-founder of Zeo, a start-up that sells a consumer sleep-monitoring device, led a discussion on the best business models for the field. And last but not least, healthcare providers and entrepreneurs discussed the best ways to try to bring these tools into medicine.

While the sessions focused on medicine were the smallest at the meeting, there are signs that self-tracking is catching the interest of mainstream healthcare. Humana, a major insurer, had several attendees, as did the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the largest healthcare centered non-profit in the country. The latter gave a grant to help the Quantified Self organization compile an online guide to self-tracking tools, with the aim of helping the movement spread.

As of Thursday, the guide listed 432 tools. Here’s a smattering;

Equanimity a mediation timer and tracker.

Quantter, a web site where you can track your daily activities using Twitter.

MoodScope, web based application for measuring, tracking and sharing your mood.

Withings Wifi Bodyscale, a digital wireless body fat monitor and scale.

Philips DirectLife, a set of activity programs aimed at increasing fitness.

DailyFeats; DailyFeats is a web app designed to reward users for good “feats” by awarding points, badges, and real world savings.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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