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What’s the future for self-tracking?–Susannah Fox

Stephen Wolfram’s essay,The Personal Analytics of My Life,begins:

“One day I’m sure everyone will routinely collect all sorts of data about themselves.”

A Pew Internet survey suggests we have a long way to go:a September 2010 survey found that 27% of internet users age 18+ track their own health data online. There may be more self-tracking happening offline —please post any measures of that phenomenon in the comments.

I was intrigued by Wolfram’s extensive use of his own data exhaust such as email time stamps,calendars,pedometer readings,and keystrokes. He feeds it all into Mathematica,a computational analysis platform,which generates amazing results that no human could create,such as this plot of about 300,000 emails:

Stephen Wolfram's outgoing email

One aspect of his data collection is extremely high-touch:230,000 pieces of paper that have been scanned in. Yikes —who did that job? He also keeps an online scrapbook/timeline,but does not appear to keep a time diary,relying instead on automagically-generated time stamps to tell him when he’s been working. I’ve been on guard against such diaries after reading “The Test of Time:A busy working mother tries to figure out where all her time is going,” by Brigid Schulte,which resonated with me and many of my working-mom friends.

Looking at Wolfram’s analysis,I wondered if he and his systems could help Schulte do a better job of tracking how she spends her time. I also wondered if she would be envious of his freedom (he admits to working until 3am and rising at 11am —not exactly helpful during those get-the-kids-off-to-school hours).

One of the central themes of Schulte’s article is that she is too busy to make time to figure out what she does with her time. Reading her account of life,you get a sense of a Mars/Venus divide – men are out on the patio enjoying a cigar and contemplating their personal time-use philosophy while women clear the table,sweep the floor,get the kids to bed,and frantically send emails about the next day’s meetings.

I did a quick search for more insights on this Mars/Venus divide and found Matthew Cornell’s post on the Quantified Self blog,Is There a Self-Experimentation Gender Gap? His rough analysis of QS comments,videos,and in-person meetings found a clear difference in participation:about 80% men,20% women.

Christine McCaull echoed Schulte’s complaint in her comment:

…I’m just too damn busy to measure almost anything regularly except my bank balance,which is calculated for me. Like most women,I’m on a triple shift life plan. I work,I write,I keep a house and raise a big family…

And yet proponents of self-tracking in health need everyone to engage in it and see its worth,not just people with the leisure (or the extreme motivation of a life-changing diagnosis) to do so.

I went back to our data to see if there is a gender divide when it comes to health tracking online. Yes,there is:women are more likely than men to do it.

Breaking it down into the two categories we asked about,we find that 18% of women track their weight,diet,or exercise routine,compared with 13% of men. Twenty-one percent of women track some other health indicators online,compared with 12% of men.

I would love to add more self-tracking questions to our next health survey,such as additional categories or follow-ups to the two questions we asked in 2010. We’ll be in the field in August-September 2012,so please post your suggestions in the comments or email me later (sfox at pewinternet dot org).

I’m also curious:do you track any aspect of your life? Has it made a difference? Would you be interested in the level of self-quantification that Stephen Wolfram has pursued (assuming you also have the same awesome tools)?


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