What we read this week (20 Jan)

In this week’s reads: Facebook wants to get into your car, Nike tracks your heartbeats, Apple’s iBook Author shakes the bookshelves, and William Gibson makes a not-unusual cameo appearance.

Quotes of the week

Metaphors are useful, as they enable the thin skein of connectivity between bodies of thought; yet they are also a leaky mechanism, potentially losing much richness from original concept to translation.

Dan Hill

Is serendipity just the playing out on the human level of the same emerging, patterned self-organization that drives evolution?

Simon G. Powell

Articles of the week

Quantified Self Data & Privacy

Tracking our behaviors and our body data means tracking the most sensitive kind of data. This is the very thing the privacy debate is about: Health and location data. So let’s think about this.

This article is part of our series on the Quantified Self.

Quantifying ourselves means tracking the most sensitive kind of data: Our behavior and our location.

The conversations we have on a day-to-day basis about body tracking and the Quantified Self clearly show that most people are acutely aware of just how sensitive this type of data is. In fact, privacy implications tend to be one of the first issues to come up.

And this most certainly isn’t just an exaggerated reaction, but rather the sensible thing to think about. But let’s take it step by step.

Our most sensitive data

In theory, tracking and “optimizing” ourselves lead to better life decisions – in other words, to be more ourselves. However, disclosing exact data about our bodies and our whereabouts makes us vulnerable. The potential for abuse is immense.

Now there are several aspects to look at:

  • What kind of data do we capture? This is largely determined by the types of services and devices is user.
  • Where is the data captured? In most cases these days our data sets are stored in the cloud, not locally. This makes it easier to handle and backup, but also more hackable and commercially exploitable. In most cases, the cloud is the right place to put this data, but I’d imagine there’s a business case to be made to allow users to store data locally. Some people might even pay a premium.
  • How do we share our data? The spectrum ranges from publishing our data sets in full, publicly and non-anonymously (this is roughly where Foursquare is), to highly anonymous aggregated data (medical data). More on that later.

And of course: Who is interested in our data?

Who wants our data?

There are quite a few players out there for whom our data is highly valuable – often in a straight-forward financial way.

Marketing departments are obvious in this context, as behavioral data creates opportunity to target potential customers, and build relationships. This could be used in “white hat” marketing, ie. in non-critical ways that actually creates value for consumers. It could also be done “black hat”, ie. in abusive ways. Think data mining gone awry.

Researcher of all flavors are interested in the kind of data sets created through self-tracking.

Governments might be tempted by location and mobility data, and try to match social graphs, location overlaps, group behaviors.

Actual is not normal (a tribute to Edward Tufte) Image by Kevin Dooley , licensed under Creative Commons Attribution.

Insurance companies might see behavioral data as gold mines. Depending on your country’s legal and social security framework, health insurances might charge customers differently depending on their fitness regime, or smoking behavior, or regularity of their heartbeats, or the number of drinks per week, or even the numbers of bars visited. Maybe the types of meals eaten and calories consumed, or body weight. In this particular context the possibilities for use and abuse are endless.

Which brings us to…


Where we deal with sensitive data, trust is key. We, the consumers & users of web services, have collectively suffered privacy missteps by internet companies and over-zealous startups over and over again. (I’m looking at you, Facebook!)

While many of us have gotten used to sharing some aspects of our social graphs online, behavior data might be a different beast altogether.

This isn’t just a matter of degree, either. Here we have such clear abuse scenarios that insisting on control over our data simply becomes commons sense.

As researcher Danah Body states (highlights are mine):

“People should – and do – care deeply about privacy. But privacy is not simply the control of information. Rather, privacy is the ability to assert control over a social situation. This requires that people have agency in their environment and that they are able to understand any given social situation so as to adjust how they present themselves and determine what information they share. […Privacy is] protected when people are able to fully understand the social environment in which they are operating and have the protections necessary to maintain agency.”

Take Facebook for example. Recently, the company introduced what they call “frictionless sharing“. What that means is that all kinds of apps and services share your activity on Facebook – which song you’re listening to, which articles you’re reading, what you comment on etc. While the announcements drew quite a bit of criticism, we can only assume that the increased sharing activity will serve the company’s goals well: It will create more engagement data, at the cost of privacy and control. In other words, at the cost of agency.

What this means for companies operating in this field is this: It must be absolutely clear that they never, ever share your behavioral data with anyone without your clear consent. More bluntly: If you don’t actively share your data with anyone outside the company, they must not do it.

Here I’d even go so far as to suggest thinking about worst-case scenarios: Maybe it even makes sense for some companies not to even store your data but instead save it on the client side, so that they could not even be subpoenaed into giving up user data.

Do I even have to mention that a strict and very easy to understand privacy policy is a must?

So, now that we have reduced the potential for abuse a bit, the next question is…

Who owns our body data?

Now here’s a question that’s both very simple and incredibly complex. As a guideline, the ideal we should always strive for is: We do! Nobody but ourselves.

However, it’s of course a bit more tricky. The service provider will need some of the data for their business case. Expect not to get anything for free. As the old internet proverb goes, you either pay or you’re being sold.

So we have data ownership and usage rights on one hand, and then we have data portability.

Let’s say we upload our running data into Runkeeper, track our meals with The Eatery, our sleep patterns with the FitBit or the Jawbone Up, and our social life through Foursquare. That’s already quite an array of services for even a basic tracking setup.

If history has taught us anything, then it is that web services don’t live forever. So we need to be able to get our data back when we need it. Better still, we should be able to move our data sets from one service to another, combine and mash them up, and allow different services to access our data in ways we can easily control. Easy is key here as we move towards mainstream adaption.

Connection Problem Image by Peter Bihr

A simple data dump won’t necessarily do – the data has to be structured, maybe even standardized. Only then can we use it in new, interesting ways.

Sharing ourselves

A hypothesis: Collecting behavior data is good. Sharing behavior data is better.

Bigger data sets allow us to derive more meaning, potentially even to create more data from what we have. The kind of data we talk about becomes immensely interesting once we start thinking in terms of scalability. Think two people comparing their fitness data is cool? A billion people comparing fitness data is cool!

To protect the individual, aggregated and anonymized data is the way to go here. Aggregated data sets still allow us interesting correlations while providing some level of protection. Although even aggregated data sets can be tricky: A study found that 87 percent of the people in the United States were uniquely identifiable with just three pieces of information: gender, date of birth and area code.

Sharing isn’t a simple process, either. As Christopher Poole pointed out in fantastic talk, most current models of online sharing assume that you have one identity and that users just need to be able to determine which bits of information to share. In reality, though, it’s much more complex. Our identity online should be like in the physical world – multi-faceted, context-dependent. It is not, in Christopher’s words, who we share to, but who we share as. This is hard to put in code, but it’s important that we think about, and hard.

Context is key in sharing. I might no be willing to publicly share my brain activity, heart beat and genetical information. However, I might be very willing to share parts of either of these with my doctor while in treatment – as long as I can be sure that the doc won’t pass it on to the insurance so they charge me extra for higher-than-average genetical chance of some kinds of cancer or Alzheimer’s. Today, most doctors or even larger clinics aren’t even able to make use of the type of genetical snapshot commercial services like 23andme, although this might change over time.

A duty to share?

In a radio interview recently we discussed privacy implications of the Quantified Self in general, and of DNA analysis in particular. What is safe to share, what is reasonable to share?

I’d like to flip the question around: What is ok not to share? Maybe we even have a duty to share?

Think of the medical research that could be done, and the treatments that could be found, if more of our behavioral data was openly available. If even just one major disease could be treated more effectively by discoveries made through body tracking and our shared data, would that not be worth it?

It’s a question we can’t answer, but I urge you to think about it. Maybe it’ll make you want to track and share some more.

Until then we encourage you all – both users and producers of Quantified Self services – to pay privacy implications the attention they deserve. So that at some point we can stop worrying and start building stuff that helps us be more ourselves.

The Quantified Self in health and lifestyle

If there’s one area where we can really see body tracking taking off, it’s medical and lifestyle. There’s hardly a week where no new service or app is launched, or a new self-tracking hardware shipped.

This is the second article in our series on the Quantified Self.

Gary Wolf, Quantified Self Image by Marc Smith (some rights reserved)

If there’s one area where we can really see tracking taking off, it’s medical and lifestyle. We deliberately combine both as the boundaries are increasingly blurry: Whereas medical emcompasses all things health-related, by lifestyle we mean to include the kind of active lifestyle that the fitness & sports industries portrait.

There’s hardly a week where no new service or app is launched, or a new self-tracking hardware shipped.

That’s not surprising in itself. After all, in the medical sphere tracking body data has always been a tool of the trade. Tell a diabetic about your fascination with body tracking and they’ll give you an odd look, after all they’ve been doing it for years. What is fascinating, though, is how QS applications have been moving towards the mainstream. Step by step, these services have become easier to use, slicker, better designed. In other words, they’ve started to make it fun to track your body.

Feedback loops, self optimization and peer pressure

The basic idea of the Quantified Self in health and fitness is obvious: Only if you know how you’ve been doing, you can really improve yourself. In other words, you need to look at data over time to see your progress. So if you keep a regular record of how fast and how long you run, you will eventually get to a point where you see the curve going up or down – in other words, where you become fitter or lazy, you see regularities and irregularities, and potentially you see patterns. For example, you might discover that you perform much better in the morning than in the evening, and could plan your workouts accordingly.

We know that feedback loops work: This principle has similarly been used in most nutritional treatments for a long time, from the blood sugar testers diabetics use to the point system of the Weight Watchers.

Tracking yourself is only part of the deal. It becomes much more magic once you share your data, either with your trusted peers or with the world. This opens up a whole treasure trove of new possibilities: Aggregated, anonymous data might be used for research, or to show fancy statistics like average fitness per city. More targeted, private sharing with your friends can provide encouragement to stick to your ambitious routine even when it’s cold and rainy outside. Never underestimate the power of peer pressure!

The autonomous patient

There is a mega trend at work here that makes all of this particularly relevant to the medical sector: Patients are becoming more autonomous, driven by three factors.

One, thanks to Google patients have more access to medical information than ever before.

Two, spending cuts on government programs for social and health care increase the pressure for their citizens to take better care of their own health.

Three, we now have the technology to do this. Sensors are becoming so cheap and ubiquitous that it’s simple and cheap to track your fitness, making it more attractive for those who are motivated to improve themselves.

Today, we have more control over our body’s fitness than ever before, and now we have the data to prove it. The Quantified Self is a manifestation of the empowered user/citizen/patient.

And let’s not forget: From an economic standpoint, the global health and fitness market is gigantic. Numbers differ vastly depending on which aspect you look at, but in many countries we’re talking billions, and the boundaries between medical and fitness/lifestyle are blurry.

Calories, scales and workouts

The pure size of the market surely is one of the reasons why so many different players are gathering here, from sportswear producers (Nike+) to medical suppliers and gadget producers (Jawbone) to telcos (T Mobile, AT&T) and web startups (Massive Health, Runkeeper).

The mere range of devices and services already out there is mind boggling. From scales to food tracking apps to all kinds of fitness & workout trackers to sleep trackers and combinations of any of these, there’s hardly any activity that’s untrackable. And not all these services are geeky and require carrying around odd hardware. For Nintendo’s popular video game console, the Wii, you can get the Wii Fit game that wraps your home workout into a game. The Jawbone Up comes in the shape of a quite neat wrist band.

However, not all body trackers are created equal. There are tremendous differences, and let the rapidly growing number of tools not deceive you. This is an emerging field, and it’ll keep exploding for awhile before consolidation kicks in and we’ll truly be able separate the wheat from the chaff.

How are the apps different?

Some of the axes of differentiation are becoming clear:

  • Stand-alone apps vs integrated systems consisting of hardware and networked software
  • Explicit vs implicit trackers: Do you have to input data by hand or is it collected automatically?
  • More open vs more closed systems: Can you move your data in and out of the service, or hook it up to other services?

Runkeeper: One service to rule them all

It’s too early to tell, but if we should wager on one killer service that will come out on top of the market, it would be Runkeeper. What started as a relatively simple Android app to track your running and share it online has since grown into a massive platform that aggregates all kinds of data, and provides an API for third party developers to build apps on top of that platform.

Image by Peter Bihr (some rights reserved)

Runkeeper confidently calls this powerful database their Health Graph, and currently it allows access to a wide range of data points like sleep, strength training, diabetes, nutrition, overall health and activities.

The Up-and-coming

There are a few other hot candidates for the upcoming months.

Massive Health is the brainchild of interaction designer and former Creative Lead for Firefox Aza Raskin. With a designer as co-founder it’s no wonder that the company brings a design twist to health. Their first of a series of apps is The Eatery, a nutrition analysis tool: snap photo of meal, learn about health implications. It’s far from perfect, but if it keeps evolving it will provide an easy, fun way of learning more about the way you eat, and of making better-informed nutritional choices – a feedback loop.

With their new Up, Jawbone (otherwise better known for bluetooth headsets) explores new territory. Their stylish wristband is equipped with motion sensors that track movement and sleep. The wristband also serves as an activity reminder that vibrates if you sit still for too long in front of your computer. The data is analyzed online, and the app shares feedback of all sorts through an app on your iPhone. Additionally, the app also allows you to snap photos of your meals, and the Up will run image analysis to give you better information about your meals. Add some social gaming group dynamics, and you have what promises to be a pretty well-rounded offer – and potentially a way out of the dilemma of having to carry around a whole set of smaller gadgets to capture different kinds of data.

What’s next?

For a while, we’re going to keep seeing the medical and fitness sector advancing the Quantified Self. They’re the obvious candidates to be trailblazers and innovators: They have the financial backing of a big, only partially tapped market. They offer strong incentives, namely self-improvement, health and fitness. And they come equipped with the right skills, sensors, and experience in tracking body data. Eventually, self-tracking will become ever easier and thereby more mainstream. Nike+, Runkeeper and the Up give us a glimpse of the things to come.

Until then we can only encourage you to experiment. Get a scale, an app, or some sensors and start tracking away. It’s good fun and you’ll learn something about yourself.

Read the rest of our series about the Quantified Self.

I track, therefore I am

From data to better living. This is the first article in our series on the Quantified Self.

This is the first article in our series on the Quantified Self.

It’s all about data

Data is at the core our lives in the information age. It’s one of the essential ingredients to how we work, make decisions, communicate and much more in the 21st century. Data is the most raw and abstract form of information, that has the power to change anything. From the decision of what to wear today by checking the weather forecast to buying or not buying stocks based on company metrics to whether to wage war or not according to data collected by an intelligence agency. That’s why we as a society have become obsessed with data. From the political campaign that lives and dies by the latest polling data to the sports fan who pores over statistics, we just can’t get enough. Data helps to empower us and and to make us capable of making better-informed decisions. It can be a guide and a backup. That’s why we’re collecting more data then ever.

Tracking data

Collecting data used to be tough. Data can only be used if it’s captured properly, and that used to be a very manual process. Basically, someone had to check the data source and write the values down. Data reveals most insights if tracked over time. The difference between read-outs from different points of time shows us what changes. And change is usually what we’re most interested in.

Over the last decades with the rise of digital technology and networks, the possibilities to automatically capture, store and process data have increased enormously. For examples, where nurses used to need to measure their patients’ data points like heart rate and temperature manually, they now have machines capture these vitals constantly and inform them about changes within milliseconds. What began in medicine, science and big industries is now trickling down into our daily lives. The technology needed to capture and track data sources automatically is becoming smaller and more connected. We now have the same kind of sensors that trigger airbags in cars – motion sensors – in our phones. Our gadgets are becoming big data gathering machines, lowering the effort to capture data considerably. All of a sudden, we are able to capture more personal data like never before.

Know thyself via data

Now, that we’re able to capture and track tons of personal data with ease, we’re finally able to make much better informed decisions about our personal lives. Because as it turns out, we’re actually quite bad at remembering and assessing our daily behaviors. How much coffee did I have last week? How long have I been in a foul mood already? How much did we spend on snacks? Our memory is terrible for questions like these. That’s were actual data helps us. If we discover that we have 5 cups a day on average, we can decide to go easy on the coffee.

One of the core concepts for this is called feedback loops. It’s what turns hybrid drivers into hypermilers because they see their gas consumption in real time. Displayed data about about our behavior gives us the opportunity to adapt our behavior.

But not only can we make better decision. By gathering all kinds of data, we can relate them to each other and create new insights. For example, we can discover that our mood changes when we had more than 4 cups of coffee, or that our spendings on snacks go up when we had less than six hours of sleep. With personal data, we can learn much more about how our bodies and our behaviors actually work. And then we can make better decisions to improve our lives.

This is what a rapidly growing group of people is fascinated by. They call it ‘The Quantified Self’.

The Quantified Self movement

In 2008, Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf noticed that more and more people around them were starting to track all kinds of data about their lives. Some of them would capture more than 40 data points from their personal life on a daily basis. So they started the first Quantified Self group in Kelly’s house. Today, there are 44 official QS groups around the planet. In May 2011, the first QS conference was held in Mountain View, California. The second conference will be held in Amsterdam this weekend.

These are the pioneers of self-tracking. They go to enormous lengths to capture their data. Some of them walk around with sensors attached to their bodies. Others fill in endless spreadsheets each day. But what may seem like obsessive acts of data nerdism to us is just preparing the way for Quantified Self to become mainstream. And this is happening rapidly.

A few years ago, to understand your sleep patterns, you would have to check yourself into a sleep clinic and get attached to an array of machines. Today, you can buy a 100 Euro device that has the size of a small alarm clock and sits on your night desk. While you sleep, you strap a small band over your head that tracks your sleep patterns. That’s it. A lot more devices for all kinds of daily activities are released these days and are advancing the Quantified Self movement to the general public. The success of the likes of Nike+ and Fitbit shows the direction we’re heading.

From data to better living

With more devices and apps being released, the capturing of personal data turns from a manual, mundane task into an unobtrusive, mostly automatic process. But collecting the data isn’t enough. To understand the long columns of numbers and make sense of all the data, we must analyze it. And that’s what the focus of the Quantified Self movement is turning to.

Creating insight from data

There are two main approaches to create insights out of data. The first one is about visualization, and it’s much broader than just in Quantified Self. We’re all looking for better ways to create meaning out of the mass of data we produce. Visualization is one of the tools used to tackle this. Infographics and all kinds of colorful diagrams are all over the media. And for good reason: A good visualization helps us comprehend the essence of massive amounts of data at a glance. It highlights the most interesting points and provides context for interpretation.

Developing visual tools to deliver insights based on the data they track is one of the big challenges for the companies dabbling in the Quantified Self, and the QS movement at large. This will be a key driver for people to adopt QS.

The other approach is sharing data. The social web has made it much easier to share anything with family, peers and complete strangers. The Quantified Self movement is big on sharing, as many insights can only be discovered through aggregated or shared data: Is my sleeping pattern normal for a person with my lifestyle? How much are others spending on groceries per month? Sharing data with others helps us to put ourselves and our behaviors into the context.

Sharing is a powerful way to behavior change: We’re much more willing to follow up on our decisions to change something if we have shared our intentions with others. We hold ourselves accountable with the help of our data.

Business opportunities

For companies that offer devices and apps to gather data, there is huge opportunity in providing their customers ways to connect data and provide extra value around it. Obviously, there are very relevant privacy implications that companies in this field need to be aware of when dealing with that kind of personal data. We think that finding the right balance between several aspects of the QS experience is what will determine which companies will lead the field. More concretely, it’s about finding the sweet spot between ease-of-use, unobtrusive data collection, insightful formatting of tracked data, and hosting a lively community that provides support and helps deal with the emotional side of things. Whoever nails all these points will have the chance to build trusted relationships with their customers.

Stay with us while we dive deeper into this movement that has great potential to make our lives better through fascinating technology and inspiring ideas.

The Quantified Self

A series of articles to give you an in-depth understanding of the fundamentals of the Quantified Self and how we think this trend will change work, technology and society.

At the heart of Third Wave is a fascination for new developments in technology and how they are shaping society and human behaviors.

The social web is such a development that we got involved in early on as bloggers and community organizers. It has been the focus of our individual work for the last years as strategists and continues to be a major part of what we do at Third Wave.

Nevertheless, we want to keep our eyes and minds open for the next developments on that scale and to continually explore new fields. That’s why we looked at ‘networked cities’ and started Cognitive Cities. We think that technology will have a significant impact on how we live in cities and we will continue to contribute to this topic as much as we can.

Recently, we’ve been fascinated by a movement that has been popping up all over our radar. Like the social web and networked cities, we think it will be a major movement throughout the next years and will change our everyday behavior significantly. It’s mostly referred to as the Quantified Self.

Within the next couple of weeks, we will bring you a series of articles to give you an in-depth understanding of the fundamentals of this trend and how we think this will change work, technology and society. As always: feedback, corrections and additional points are always very welcome.


#1 I track, therefore I am
#2 The Quantified Self in Health and Lifestyle
#3 The Quantified Self Data & Privacy
#4 Interview with Deutschlandradio Kultur: Die Vermessung des Selbst
#5 How the Quantified Self might change our lives. A 2020 scenario.
#6 Article on Golem.de: Ich tracke, also bin ich
#7 Article on Golem.de: Wem gehört unser vermessenes Leben?
#8 Quantified Self in practice: The Eatery
#9 Event: Digitale Selbstvermessung – Leben nach Maß?
#10 An update on the Quantified Self
To be continued.

Read all our posts related to the Quantified Self.

Week 59

A week packed with Next Conference curation, a panel on the future of education, a Third Wave retreat, a blog series on the Quantified Self and some updates on Cognitive Cities.

Phew, what a week. What a month, really! Turns out November is easily one of the busiest months in the year, that much of a pattern is becoming obvious. Not that we’re complaining, quite the opposite. So what’s been happening?

Igor’s back

Igor had been over in New York and San Francisco for the better part of two weeks, to meet a whole bunch of awesome people and attend Science Hack Day. He summarized his trip in last week’s weeknote. Now he’s back, and we hardly had time to catch up before throwing him right onto a big pile of projects we’re working on. Good to have you back, buddy!

Next Conference

We’re glad we get a chance to curate and host two tracks at the Next Berlin Conference next May. On Monday, the curators met up for the first time, and I can tell you, it’s a good group of folks. More on our ideas for the program soon. But I can give you a tiny glimpse already: We’ll be featuring experimental, innovative topics ranging from the Quantified Self to digital alter egos, from Arduino hacks to the Internet of Things. Also, some hands-on stuff to tinker. And a best-of of the user votings of sorts. Speaking of which – you can still submit proposals here.

Research, research, research

We’re still digging deep into the inner workings of both our client, Postbank, and the ins and outs of the whole digital banking sphere. The whole sector is changing rapidly, and we really want to understand it from the ground up – of course, as always, with a focus on the digital strategy and social media aspects.

The Future of Education & Coworking

Wednesday night I was invited to join a panel on the future of education, and how coworking can learn from and inspire more traditional learning institutions. The panel was the first of a series of salons with an education focus, and quite good fun. I was baffled & inspired most by a school project that I hadn’t been aware of before – a school where the students learn very self-directed and autonomously, and are not treated like someone to watch, but someone to assist in their own endeavors. What better place to learn about education than while actually being on a panel about the very topic? Audio recording of the salon might be up on the salon page at some point.

Panorama photo

Third Wave Retreat

Sticking to our well-established tradition of going on regular retreats to think freely about the future of Third Wave itelf, we headed for a few days up to the Baltic Sea. We rented a cozy place up on Usedom to talk strategy, business development, optimization, vision – and which fish restaurant to frequent, of course. We’ll be talking more about this over the next few weeks and months, but the gist is: We’re still learning, and fast, and we’re headed in the right direction.

The future of Cognitive Cities

As for CoCities, we’ve been thinking hard for quite a while. Where to take the brand, how to further develop the topic? We’re all sure we’d like to dig deeper, to work in this emerging field, to keep thinking and exploring. Which shape this is going to take isn’t one hundred percent clear yet. Pending a number of very interesting conversations we’ve set up for the coming weeks, we might leapfrog the topic, or take smaller steps.

One thing is becoming clear: There isn’t going to be a big CoCities Conference in 2012. We simply won’t have the time to put it together in a way that would match or top this year’s CoCities Conference.

That said, over the next few weeks we will have some updates, which might be very exciting if things work out. Follow this blog and our Twitter accounts @thirdwaveberlin and @cocities for updates.

The Quantified Self

Today, we’ll kick off a series of posts about the Quantified Self and body tracking. Over the next few days and weeks, watch the list of posts grow here. Over the weekend, I’m also going to be at Quantified Self Europe Conference in Amsterdam.