The Quantified Self: How Cold, Hard Data Improve Lives

Modern technology means self-improvement is just an app away

People have been experimenting with self-tracking hardware ever since Leonardo Da Vinci designed the precursor to the modern pedometer in the 15th century.

With the explosion of smartphones and wearable tech, we can now track everything from calories eaten and burned to quality of sleep and happiness. And all without ever stepping foot in a doctor's office.  Apple's first foray into wearable tech—the Apple Watch—includes a heart-rate monitor and advanced tracking software that can communicate with health-care providers.

"The Quantified Self,” a photo series by London-based Travis Hodges, explores how people monitoring anything from insulin injections to financial records use cold, hard data to live better lives.

Alex Collins was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in August 2013, which means he has to inject insulin before every meal. Physical activity is important to him, but exercise increases the risk of low blood sugar, a debilitating condition that, in extreme circumstances, can be deadly. "I immediately started tracking data to give myself the best chance of managing my blood sugar safely whilst exercising," Alex says. He monitors four things: insulin doses, exercise, blood sugar, and grams of carbohydrate eaten during meals, snacks, and exercise. "The motivation to be able to continue doing the things I love is powerful and drives me to spend the 20 minutes a day needed to track everything," he says. Since being diagnosed, he has run an ultra marathon and the London marathon while setting a Guinness World record for the fastest marathon run in an animal costume.  

Suran: Body shape
Suran steps into a 3D body scanner once a month to map his body shape and record measurements that would be unreliable at best if done by hand. The scanner gives Suran precise measurements along with a 3D map of his body that can be manipulated to show how he will look if he gains or looses weight.?I got interested in monitoring my body-shape after my Uncle died of a heart attack. One of the best predictors of heart disease is the size of your belly, but getting consistent and accurate measurements by a tape measure is hard. Even if you take several experienced tailors, they will all give you different measurements for, say, your abdomen circumference. The body-scanner, which I use once a month, gives me accurate and consistent measurements so I know that I am on track with my diet and swimming.?
Photographer: Travis Hodges/INSTITUTE
Suran: Body shape Suran steps into a 3D body scanner once a month to map his body shape and record measurements that would be unreliable at best if done by hand. The scanner gives Suran precise measurements along with a 3D map of his body that can be manipulated to show how he will look if he gains or looses weight.?I got interested in monitoring my body-shape after my Uncle died of a heart attack. One of the best predictors of heart disease is the size of your belly, but getting consistent and accurate measurements by a tape measure is hard. Even if you take several experienced tailors, they will all give you different measurements for, say, your abdomen circumference. The body-scanner, which I use once a month, gives me accurate and consistent measurements so I know that I am on track with my diet and swimming.?

Suran Goonatilake steps into a 3D body scanner once a month to map precisely his body shape and record measurements. He began monitoring his body shape after his uncle died of a heart attack. "One of the best predictors of heart disease is the size of your belly," he says, "but getting consistent and accurate measurements by a tape measure is hard." The scanner lets him know if he should modify his exercise regimen or diet.

Michael: Happiness
Michael designed and built an app called Happiness as a technological alternative to chemical anti-depressants. At random times of the day the app asks him to rate his mood on a positive/negative sliding scale and he records whatever is affecting this. ?By staying generally conscious of my mental state I'm able to spot patterns and make changes before anything gets too overwhelming. Tracking my happiness has also helped validate various life decisions that I might otherwise doubt. I've been tracking my happiness for years but my tracking has been much more consistent since I started using this particular app. ?The last couple of year have seen a steady incline in my overall happiness. Depression or moments of intense unhappiness are largely a thing of the past and now I'm in more of an 'optimisation' phase than struggling with anything particularly difficult. It's been a while since the app has shown me a big red warning necessitating a painful life decision. I won't stop, just because I'm in a good place - I think staying mindful of your mood is more useful as prevention than cure.?
Photographer: Travis Hodges/INSTITUTE
Michael: Happiness Michael designed and built an app called Happiness as a technological alternative to chemical anti-depressants. At random times of the day the app asks him to rate his mood on a positive/negative sliding scale and he records whatever is affecting this. ?By staying generally conscious of my mental state I'm able to spot patterns and make changes before anything gets too overwhelming. Tracking my happiness has also helped validate various life decisions that I might otherwise doubt. I've been tracking my happiness for years but my tracking has been much more consistent since I started using this particular app. ?The last couple of year have seen a steady incline in my overall happiness. Depression or moments of intense unhappiness are largely a thing of the past and now I'm in more of an 'optimisation' phase than struggling with anything particularly difficult. It's been a while since the app has shown me a big red warning necessitating a painful life decision. I won't stop, just because I'm in a good place - I think staying mindful of your mood is more useful as prevention than cure.?

Michael Forrest designed and built an app called Happiness as an alternative to chemical anti-depressants. At random times of day, the app asks him to rate his mood on a sliding scale, and he records what might be influencing his outlook. "By staying generally conscious of my mental state, I'm able to spot patterns and make changes before anything gets too overwhelming," he says. Although he had been tracking his happiness for years, the app helps him do so more consistently. He currently considers himself to be in an "optimization" period. "It's been a while since the app has shown me a big, red warning necessitating a painful life decision," he says. 

Photographer: Travis Hodges/INSTITUTE

Rosa began tracking her personal finances in 2009, when she began worrying about spending and even suspected that someone might be stealing from her bank account. Using a simple spreadsheet template and a banking app, she records all her debits. "After tracking the data for a few months," she says, "I recall drastically cutting out the concept 'going out.' I didn't have the feeling I was going out that much, but the figures said the opposite." The only person Rosa caught stealing from her account was herself.

Ian: 200+ lifestyle variables
Ian began tracking his health in 1974, initially by recording exercise and weight along with occasional health checks. This all changed in 2007 when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only weeks to live. His tracking went into overdrive, expanding both what was tracked and its frequency. Ian now records over 200 areas of his daily life including body composition using the Tanita monitor seen here, for such things as weight, muscle, fat, water and left/right amounts for each. From this information he deduces what is helping or harming his healthiness. To enable comparison, Ian records a long list of variables that includes exercise, alternative therapies, supplements taken, liquid intake, food, prescription drugs and biochemical measures (cancer markers, blood pressure, urine and blood metrics).His routine of tracking and analysing data means his spreadsheet now measures over 400 columns and 2,400 daily records. ?I do many different statistical techniques to extract meaning, alas falling short of what I hoped for, due to my own mathematical limitations. Attempts to get help have so far failed, so I struggle on as best I can.? This focus and ?struggle? seems to be as influential a factor to his longevity as any of his tracked variables.
Photographer: Travis Hodges/INSTITUTE
Ian: 200+ lifestyle variables Ian began tracking his health in 1974, initially by recording exercise and weight along with occasional health checks. This all changed in 2007 when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only weeks to live. His tracking went into overdrive, expanding both what was tracked and its frequency. Ian now records over 200 areas of his daily life including body composition using the Tanita monitor seen here, for such things as weight, muscle, fat, water and left/right amounts for each. From this information he deduces what is helping or harming his healthiness. To enable comparison, Ian records a long list of variables that includes exercise, alternative therapies, supplements taken, liquid intake, food, prescription drugs and biochemical measures (cancer markers, blood pressure, urine and blood metrics).His routine of tracking and analysing data means his spreadsheet now measures over 400 columns and 2,400 daily records. ?I do many different statistical techniques to extract meaning, alas falling short of what I hoped for, due to my own mathematical limitations. Attempts to get help have so far failed, so I struggle on as best I can.? This focus and ?struggle? seems to be as influential a factor to his longevity as any of his tracked variables.

Ian Clements began tracking his health in 1974, recording exercise and weight, along with occasional health checkups. When diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2007 and given weeks to live, he expanded his scope. Ian now records more than 200 areas of his daily life, including body composition via the Tanita monitor for such things as weight, muscle, fat, and water. "I do many different statistical techniques to extract meaning—alas, falling short of what I hoped for, due to my own mathematical limitations," he says. From that information, Ian deduces what is helping or hurting his health. His data spreadsheet spans 2,400 daily records.

 

Photographer: Travis Hodges/INSTITUTE

Jonathan suffers from intense anxiety and insomnia. Treatment can be tricky because certain addictive medications need to be closely monitored for long-term use. Self-tracking allows Jonathan to monitor his sleep and can provide evidence of the effectiveness of his treatment, which can be tweaked accordingly. "My [quantified self-] tracking gives [my doctor] the evidence he needs to demonstrate to the General Medical Council—and they do check up on these things—he's being responsible with his prescribing," he says. 

Barbara: Happiness and wellbeing
Barbara and her family use a self designed app to track and influence their happiness. By creating and sharing tasks based on the 'eight areas of life' (Health and fitness, Home, Partner/Self Leadership, Friends and family, Finance, Career/study, Funtime and Me), members of the family can see what each other needs to feel happy and therefore support each other in achieving their goals. For April 2014 Barbara set 80 tasks, achieving 76 which completed 9 of the 10 self defined stepping stones for her big picture of happiness and harmony. Tasks included recording in a gratitude journal each morning, choosing healthy food options and scheduling 15 minutes a day to actively listen to each family member. Happiness and wellbeing can be very subjective things to track, by quantifying such tasks she hopes that ?We can draw on either our actions or awareness to influence our outcomes and achieve the balance of happiness within harmony.?We find that we more easily notice the good, are curious and enjoy being responsible for finding solutions and not dwelling on problems. We enjoy the sense that by giving to ourselves we have more to give in life in general!?
Photographer: Travis Hodges/INSTITUTE
Barbara: Happiness and wellbeing Barbara and her family use a self designed app to track and influence their happiness. By creating and sharing tasks based on the 'eight areas of life' (Health and fitness, Home, Partner/Self Leadership, Friends and family, Finance, Career/study, Funtime and Me), members of the family can see what each other needs to feel happy and therefore support each other in achieving their goals. For April 2014 Barbara set 80 tasks, achieving 76 which completed 9 of the 10 self defined stepping stones for her big picture of happiness and harmony. Tasks included recording in a gratitude journal each morning, choosing healthy food options and scheduling 15 minutes a day to actively listen to each family member. Happiness and wellbeing can be very subjective things to track, by quantifying such tasks she hopes that ?We can draw on either our actions or awareness to influence our outcomes and achieve the balance of happiness within harmony.?We find that we more easily notice the good, are curious and enjoy being responsible for finding solutions and not dwelling on problems. We enjoy the sense that by giving to ourselves we have more to give in life in general!?

Barbara McNaughton and her family use a self-designed app to track and influence their happiness. By creating and sharing goals based on their collective eight areas of life—health and fitness, home, partner/self leadership, friends and family, finance, career/study, fun time, and "me"—members of the family can help support one another in achieving their objectives. "We can draw on either our actions or awareness to influence our outcomes," Barbara says. In April 2014, she set 80 tasks and did 76 of them, which completed 9 out of 10 personal stepping stones toward happiness. Examples of activities included recording in a gratitude journal each morning, choosing healthy food options, and scheduling 15 minutes a day to listen to each family member.

Owen: Mental performance
Owen, a qualified pharmacist, tracks aspects of his mental performance and the effect of coffee on his short term memory, reaction time and processing capabilities. ?My job is quite intense and I need to be on the ball all the time. When mental performance is at its peak, tasks are easier and quicker to do. It's about working smart, not hard. So, by tracking my cognition I can assess what is helping to give me a great day, or likely to make it more difficult!?Every morning I have filter coffee blended with butter and coconut oil, while this does sound rather strange, it has a dramatic effect on improving my cognition.  Coffee has great effects on the brain, but often doesn't last that long, however when blended with the butter slows the absorption giving a longer effect without that post-caffeine crash! ?When I first started, using a program called Quantified Mind, I checked my mental performance when I had coffee against when I didn't have it. The results showed significant improvements in the way my mind functions, and so I've been having it ever since.?
Photographer: Travis Hodges/INSTITUTE
Owen: Mental performance Owen, a qualified pharmacist, tracks aspects of his mental performance and the effect of coffee on his short term memory, reaction time and processing capabilities. ?My job is quite intense and I need to be on the ball all the time. When mental performance is at its peak, tasks are easier and quicker to do. It's about working smart, not hard. So, by tracking my cognition I can assess what is helping to give me a great day, or likely to make it more difficult!?Every morning I have filter coffee blended with butter and coconut oil, while this does sound rather strange, it has a dramatic effect on improving my cognition. Coffee has great effects on the brain, but often doesn't last that long, however when blended with the butter slows the absorption giving a longer effect without that post-caffeine crash! ?When I first started, using a program called Quantified Mind, I checked my mental performance when I had coffee against when I didn't have it. The results showed significant improvements in the way my mind functions, and so I've been having it ever since.?

Owen Bain is a pharmacist. "My job is quite intense, and I need to be on the ball all the time," he says. So he tracks his mental performance by testing his short-term memory, reaction time and processing capabilities and the effect of coffee on his results. "When mental performance is at its peak, tasks are easier and quicker to do," he says. "It's about working smart, not hard." Owen starts every morning with filtered coffee blended with coconut oil and butter, which, he says, slows the caffeine absorption rate and minimizes the post-coffee crash.

Danny: Steps and BMI
Over the last 18 months Danny has used a number of wearable devices to quantify the number of steps he takes each day, this data is shown along with his BMI.?My interest in the quantified self is both personal and professional. I?m a PhD student at the UCL Interaction Centre, where I am developing an in-depth understanding of how people engage with activity tracking systems over a long-term. I have a particular interest in targeting physical inactivity, which is responsible for approximately 2.3 million deaths each year (WHO, 2009). We don?t yet really understand how well systems such as the Fitbit work to encourage people to be more active and I hope to solve this. Tracking my own steps has made me more aware of my activity and health: as a result I?ve lost a considerable amount of weight and am much fitter.?
Photographer: Travis Hodges/INSTITUTE
Danny: Steps and BMI Over the last 18 months Danny has used a number of wearable devices to quantify the number of steps he takes each day, this data is shown along with his BMI.?My interest in the quantified self is both personal and professional. I?m a PhD student at the UCL Interaction Centre, where I am developing an in-depth understanding of how people engage with activity tracking systems over a long-term. I have a particular interest in targeting physical inactivity, which is responsible for approximately 2.3 million deaths each year (WHO, 2009). We don?t yet really understand how well systems such as the Fitbit work to encourage people to be more active and I hope to solve this. Tracking my own steps has made me more aware of my activity and health: as a result I?ve lost a considerable amount of weight and am much fitter.?

A Ph.D. student at University College London, Danny Harrison is studying how people engage with activity-tracking systems over the long term. He's his own guinea pig, wearing a couple of smart wristbands to gain a better understanding of how they influence behavior. "We don't yet really understand how well systems such as the Fitbit work to encourage people to be more active, and I hope to solve this," he says.