Kristian Barnes
May 7, 2014

The quantified what, who?

In the shortest sense, the ‘quantified self’ is self-knowledge through self-tracking with technology, or more interestingly known as ‘body-hacking’.

Kristian Barnes is CEO, Vizeum Asia-Pacific
Kristian Barnes is CEO, Vizeum Asia-Pacific

The moniker was first proposed by Wired magazine editors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly in 2007, although as a methodology it is not new: Benjamin Franklin apparently tracked 17 personal virtues in a daily journal in order to achieve moral perfection.

Think about it this way, if you currently use wearable technology or applications like Fitbit, Jawbone, Digifit, Nike+, Moodpanda, Headspace or Luminosity, you are already a part of the quantified self movement. You are tracking your daily behaviour, moods or habits in an effort to understand and improve them, often as part of a social group within the technology or application ecosystem, and all the while collecting detailed data on that aspect of your life. And you are not alone: sports, health and fitness apps grew by 49 per cent in 2013, with more than 25 per cent of smartphone owners using their device to track their health, diet or exercise.

Okay, so every day we document and share more of our lives; what we do, who we spend time with, where we go, the state of our minds and so on. We do this through a combination of wearable tech, cloud-based quantified self platforms or applications, and even those ubiquitous loyalty programmes. So the big question is what is happening with all that quantified self data about me (not just improving my lap times), that I am merrily producing every day?

On top of the personal reason that we started tracking in the first place—improving sleep patterns, understanding moods, exercising—there are some bigger plays around the growth of personal data.

This growth in personal data can be extremely positive. The potential for our collective personal data to improve health and well-being is high. An example of this is Spiroscout, a sensor that attaches to an asthma inhaler and uses satellite-positioning data to enable patients and researchers to work out which environments make their condition worse. Imagine the benefit in being warned that weather changes or an environment you’re about to enter could trigger an attack.

An even more conscious approach to the benefits of the quantified self are websites such as PatientsLikeMe and CureTogether. Already tens of thousands of patients around the world are sharing symptoms and treatment information for hundreds of conditions that they have been tracking, in some instances for years. There are already verifiable outcomes particularly in the understanding of symptom and drug combinations.

Now to the dark side of the quantified self, which is best encapsulated in the idea of 'worthiness'—an idea raised by Michael Carney in 2013. We are giving up our personal data at a rapid rate through wearable tech and quantified self-applications, loyalty cards and social check-ins, with little consideration for what it may mean to us in the future. As we create more data, companies will use it to evaluate our current and future worthiness for their products, services, and opportunities.

Carney proposes that as insurers and lenders attempt to manage risk, they will inevitably turn to alternative data sources to round out the picture of each consumer applicant; in fact, they already are.

But, I hear you cry, that’s impossible. I signed a data privacy T&C when I downloaded my 'runbetter' application. While most are consumer-friendly, data monetisation is where quantifiable self platforms see their long term revenue opportunities and as we become more comfortable with sharing our personal information, the boundaries of personal data sharing will blur.

The quantified self will continue to grow as a part of our everyday life. As the internet of things becomes ubiquitous, with many start-ups developing micro sensors to place in everyday objects such as toothbrushes to monitor usage, we will find it adds value to our lives. What we should be aware of though is what personal data is being collected from you, and be conscious of the potential applications it may be used for.

There will come a point where a genuine 'full view' of you exists, available to you, which is able to predict your mood or desire based on data gathered about you from different sources. Some might find it scary, others might say it's what parents and couples have been doing for generations offline anyway.

Walter De Brouwer (Scanadu) believes one future of the quantified self may be like eBay for people. Keeping personal data may make you valuable to others, for example if you have a rare condition because there will be a market for clinical trial testing. That’s one way to make an extra buck.

Kristian Barnes is CEO, Vizeum Asia-Pacific

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