The Quantified Self: How Cold, Hard Data Improve Lives

Modern technology means self-improvement is just an app away
Belinda Lanks

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

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
Photographer: Travis Hodges/INSTITUTE

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
Photographer: Travis Hodges/INSTITUTE

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. 

Rosa
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
Photographer: Travis Hodges/INSTITUTE

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.

 

Jonathan
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
Photographer: Travis Hodges/INSTITUTE

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
Photographer: Travis Hodges/INSTITUTE

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
Photographer: Travis Hodges/INSTITUTE

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.