The Quantified Self: thoughts and a perspective

Here are some miscellaneous thoughts that have been kicking around at the back of my head around health 2.0 | the quantified self or whatever else one would like to call it. First of all, this isn’t some shiny new revolution, like most technology stories, it has been a long train running that has slowly moved into our consciousness and like technologies before it (VoIP – voice over internet protocol, online social networks, online self-publishing) we, as a society, may not be ready for it during its first mainstream incarnation.

So lets go back:

Pre-digital  – the roots of the quantified self lie in a pre-digital age. One of the first things that people learn on a diet or whilst doing body building is the discipline of keeping a record of what they have eaten or their performance during workouts.

Even the social networks that the likes of Nike+ and Polar devices have owes a debt to real-world meetings like Weight Watchers weigh-ins, informal discussions at gyms and the letters columns of bodybuilding magazines.

I have owned a pedometer which used movement not that unlike a mechanical watch to measure distance walked since I was eight. A family friend had brought it back from Japan and it is a funky sage green colour that seemed to be popular in the 1970s.

In early 1990s, I used to scuba dive on a regular basis, we would plan a dive and record each dive in a log. I used to keep a record of the dive profile, the amount of air I had consumed (an analogue of general fitness) and other factors:

  • Atmospheric pressure
  • Dive site elevation
  • Whether I had undergone nitrogen narcosis during the dive and what the symptoms were

Pre-mainstream internet – around the time I started diving, digital dive computers were starting to become ubiquitous with  a company called Uwatec’s Aladdin series of computers being the device of choice for my friends.

Finnish company Suunto took things to the next level with the release of dive computers with a PC interface (via a serial port) and an accompanying piece of software called Dive Manager soon after. It was probably no coincidence that just over a decade earlier another Finnish company Polar Electro had come up with the first wearable wire free heart rate monitors to aid in training for cross country skiing.

Data-mining – fitness gadgets generally capture forms of kinetic energy:

  • Heart beats
  • Movements triggering an accelerometer or distance recorded by GPS (running, repetitive movements of a work out or movement in one’s sleep – which is an analogue for quality of sleep)

But other lifestyle aspects like diet are effectively captured by mainstream retailers and credit card companies:

  • What you buy to eat
  • How often you buy sports shoes or equipment
  • An idea of distance traveled
  • How much fuel was used
  • Use of public transport
  • What medicines and treatments you buy
  • How much time you spend at home

Which is how Target often knows when customers are pregnant way before their nearest and dearest. The quality of data that gadgets create is nothing compared to this transactional data, if data-mined in the right way.

MEMS and battery technology

Two things that has moved the quantified self into the mainstream are battery technology improvements, in particular high power density rechargeable batteries and MEMS (microelectromechanical systems).

Over the past three decades consumers access to battery technology has radically changed our mobile and digital lives. We have seen batteries that we can recharge, so that the cost of running a battery device declined and freed up product designers who could move beyond standard form factors. The first set of these that entered common usage were NiCd batteries, I used to have one about the size of a pack of chewing gum in my Sony Discman, larger ones were used in Japanese remote controlled cars from the likes of Tamiya and cordless drills.

Cd stands for cadmium, a toxic metal and a new breed of nickel based batteries came in: NiMH or nickel metal hydride – the popularity of NiMH batteries  coincided with the rise of the mobile phone. If you own an electric toothbrush or similar devices, these still have NiMH batteries.

A quest for batteries that didn’t suffer so badly from memory effect and held more power led to consumer electronics using lithium ion batteries in high-end devices through the late 1990s and eventually into mobile phones.

This allowed products to be made smaller:

  • Palm V PDA
  • Motorola RAZR V3 mobile handset
  • Ericsson T28 & T39 mobile handsets

Lithium polymer batteries are a development on from lithium-ion batteries, the key advantage with these were that lithium polymer batteries can fit better into shapes, moulded to fit devices like Sony’s Xperia X1.

This all makes devices like Nike’s Fuel band possible and useable for your average consumer.

Inkjet printers, industrial chemistry and your smartphone – the other part of the technological puzzle MEMS have been a slow creeping evolution since the 1980s.

MEMS developed hand-in-hand with the semiconductor industry as the engineering techniques developed were applied to creating more than silicon circuits and even used in manipulating polymer (plastic) materials.

It was first used in providing highly accurate weighing scales allowing laboratories and factories to move away from complex and temperamental electro-mechanical scales. They were then used as high precision pressure and flow meters.

MEMS are used in the mechanism of inkjet printers to get a fine spray on page, however it was the use of them as acelerometers in smartphones that made them sufficiently affordable to put in fitness gadgets like Fitbit or the Nike Fuelband.

MEMS have a wider use in healthcare such as ‘lab-on-a-chip’ applications.

Current limitations

From a device point of view there is a constant tension between accurate data and a commercially viable product cheap enough to use. Data-wise there the integration challenges and access to data sets that could improve the quality of the information available.

As a society, we don’t understand the power and the consequences of the data that we would be unleashing. From a legal point-of-view, we get the politicians that we pay for, so we shouldn’t be surprised when we get laws that favour commercial special interest groups that spend money on party contributions and lobbying programmes.

Access all areas

A change in focus in healthcare led by organisations like Kaiser Permanente moving from treatment to prevention of diseases, technology and a re-defining of what private means that whether we like it or not the quantified self is going to peer into every aspect of our life.

Every social update:

  • Photograph with a glass or cigarette in your hand or a delicious but unhealthy meal
  • Update that talks about a skipped gym class
  • Check-in at a fast food restaurant
  • Like of a health risk like chocolate bars or scuba diving

Every credit card transaction, every bit of location data. Your life is no longer your own, your choices continually questioned against will my health insurance payments go up or my mortgage protection insurance conditions change? Free will outsourced to computer software and hardware.

The irony of the quantified self is that the data is most likely to be used against many of the very people who have tried to use the data:

  • Regular exercise can have implications for muscular-skeletal wear
  • The lack of exercise leads to other conditions like diabetes

These risks can be more actively weighed and mitigated against by insurance companies careful crafting of and amending conditions.

More information
How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did – Forbes
How Target Gets the Most Out of Its Guest Data by Andrew Pole, Target – Predictive Analytics World East 2010 (video)