How Big Data Can Make Us Happier and Healthier
John C. Havens is the founder of The H(app)athon Project and author of the upcoming book H(app)y — The Value of Well Being in a Digital Economy (Tarcher/Penguin, 2014). He can be reached @johnchavens.
Big data is getting personal. People around the globe are monitoring everything from their health, sleep patterns, sex and even toilet habits with articulate detail, aided by mobile technology. Whether users track behavior actively by entering data or passively via sensors and apps, the quantified self (QS) movement has grown to become a global phenomenon, where impassioned users seek context from their big data identities.
Moreover, with services like Saga and Open Sen.se, users can combine multiple streams of data to create insights that inspire broader behavior change than by analyzing a single trait. This reflects a mixed approach design (MAD) research methodology that purposely blends quantitative and qualitative factors in a framework where numbers are driven by nuance. The science of happiness, for example, is now a serious study for business, as organizations combine insights of the head and heart to create environments where workers feel their efforts foster meaningful change.
However it’s studied, the desire to understand monitored behavior has reached a fever pitch, and the QS movement is attempting to meaningfully interpret our daily data.
The Power of Passivity
“We are moving towards a time when the ability to track and understand data is deeply woven into our daily lives,” says Ernesto Ramirez, community organizer for Quantified Self, the eponymous organization created by Kevin Kelly of Wired and Gary Wolf. “Sensors are becoming cheaper and connectivity is more ubiquitous by the day.”
This ever-present nature of data availability will become even more powerful when the general public begins to use apps that require little ongoing attention or input. Passive data collection is especially relevant in the healthcare industry, for example.
“The data quantified self provides is not a replacement of any measurement to date — we haven’t had this type of measurement to date,” says Halle Tecco, co-founder and CEO of Rockhealth, the first seed accelerator for digital health startups. “Patients live very cautiously before trips to doctors, and this causes more trips to doctors. It’s better if physicians can get a more comprehensive view of people’s ongoing health.”
Tecco highlights the importance of passive monitoring. For instance, a mobile app can continuously measure glucose levels or other factors like heart rate over time. Spikes in those readings could immediately trigger a doctor, even remotely. “We can save money and improve outcomes by having data collection embedded in our everyday lives,” she adds.
Declaring Your Deeds
Nowadays, people are declaring their daily goals and intentions to peers and seeking their support via social media. Companies like Gympact and StickK operate on accountability-based influence (ABI), a scenario in which you’re judged on your actions versus your words. Beeminder, a “motivational tool that puts your money where your mouth is,” falls into this category too, according to co-founders Daniel Reeves and Bethany Soule. Users quantify a goal and pledge to pay money to Beeminder if they fall off the wagon.
“The platform lets users tweak their regimen at any time, with the caveat that any changes take effect with a one-week delay, says Reeves, so you can change your commitment, but you can’t change it out of laziness, unless you’re particularly forward-thinking about your laziness.”
According to Reeves and Soule, Beeminder is the only platform that combines the advantages of quantified self-tracking with a commitment contract, a compelling and self-binding form of digital declaration in which users risk a public pledge as a form of accountability for their goals.
Other companies in the QS space offer tangible ways to demonstrate action. uGooder provides a simple framework for tracking positive behavior, wherein users gain badges for broadcasting good deeds they’ve completed. The service also lets users print a transcript of all the good deeds they’ve ever done using the platform.
“I thought some day this might be something people could take to a job interview or submit with a college application to show how much good they have done,” says Dan Lowe, uGooder’s creator.
The idea is compelling — why shouldn’t employers or schools focus on overtly positive, community-supported behavior, versus an errant photo of high school revelry?
The rise of portfolio platforms like Pathbrite and LinkedIn’s volunteer profiles encourage people to professionally self-claim their positive behavior. The rise in ABI will eventually supplant trust networks built primarily on words.
The Advantage of Aggregation
“We are of the philosophy that data is versatile,” says Rafi Haladjian, co-founder of Sen.se. “Once you collect data from a source, you can decide how to use it later on.”
Haladjian seems more artist than engineer. He credits the muse of serendipity for guiding data in ways that maximize insights for enlightened users. Sen.se also proselytizes the “Internet of Everything” over the Internet of Things, supporting the idea of the interconnectivity of data when multiple passive sensors work in unison, versus one input alone.
“We need to create the culture of data mashups and we’re finding ways to make that easier,” he says.
Demonstrating how to identify unique patterns via these mashups, Haladjian speaks of an elderly parent whose passive sensor placed in her favorite armchair measures how much time she spends sitting. The sensor is one of many placed throughout her home to gauge time spent in various locations or usage of different appliances, data the woman’s caretaker can use to measure her health.
In this instance, information is collected without its full purpose known beforehand. “If users start to simply collect data in this way,” notes Haladjian, “they can use all sorts of tools to discover the hidden meanings that lie behind the mundane.”
Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings also studies the concept of data mashing. Her concept of the quantified community interprets big data as a series of inputs, driven by individuals who wish to improve their communities and world. She describes her vision of quantified community in an article for Project Syndicate: “I predict (and am trying to foster) the emergence of a quantified community movement, with communities measuring the state, health and activities of their people and institutions, thereby improving them.”
For example, she says, when QS tools collect data about health, this data can and should be combined with local health statistics to generate new insights. She also notes the existence of civically minded apps like Street Bump that let users take photographs of or collect data around potholes or other citizen concerns.
This community focus shows how the QS movement can provide a new layer of qualitative data on top of quantified reporting. Think about an app wherein citizens could report their emotional state at seeing a pothole, as well as record its location. QS apps could easily aggregate these emotional tags with obvious economic repercussions. (If you look for good schools when buying a house, wouldn’t you also check the “emotional history” of a neighborhood as well?) Combine this tagging with the ability to search the virtual arena via augmented reality tools like Google Glass and it’s easy to see how the quantified community will usher in a transformative era of civic engagement.
Emotions in the Enterprise
“Altruism is alive and well on the Internet,” says Paul Marcum, director of global digital marketing and programming for GE and a driver of Healthy Share, a Facebook app that lets users announce health goals and use friends as sources of inspiration. “There is an opportunity to have users ‘pay it forward,’ when they build themselves up by helping others,” he says.
The platform proves that the idea of quantified self has taken hold with brands and enterprise. Marcum points out that “sharing is a form of tracking,” that announcing actions via social media is akin to active monitoring via a QS device. “This is information people want to share, and we want to know how to capture that to spark behavior change,” says Marcum.
Platforms wherein users are driven by intrinsic motivation and supported by a community let brands get out of the way and understand what truly drives a user base.
“Why is ethical integrity, why is character not considered an economic asset in a time when trust and reputation are widely heralded as competitive advantages for companies?” asks Tim Leberecht, chief marketing officer for frog and a driver for the company’s recent Reinvent Business hackathon, an event to “create concepts and prototypes to help create a more social and human enterprise.”
In his post entitled “Hope for the Quantified Self,” he refers to mounting evidence that shows well-being and happiness increase productivity and the bottom line. The result is organizations seeking to understand what truly makes employees happy, how to best blend qualitative along with quantitative metrics, a practice that may seem foreign to most corporate cultures.
Leberecht has a solution: “We need to find a way to measure the social value created by those whose contributions are outside of the common ROI vocabulary.”
He cites the CEO who inspires and instills hope for thousands of employees, but who has failed to meet the board’s growth expectations.”As hyper-connectivity and social networks tear down the boundaries between professional and private lives, only those who are complete will be able to compete.” Matching internal and external character, words and deeds, these new “whole selves” will no longer tolerate a chasm between idealism and pragmatism.
Leberecht’s observations point to a growing pressure for organizations to study happiness within the workplace. Corporate restrictions may soon lift to proactively embrace character traits from outside the workplace, and qualitative paradigms will gain the credibility of quantitative metrics.
“What if we were able to take the quantified use of metadata, a computing-based narrative of humanity, and integrate it with centuries of human narrative and storytelling?” asks Thanassis Rikakis, vice provost for design, arts and technology at Carnegie Mellon University. “That would provide a tremendous opportunity to understand humanity at a level that’s never been understood before.”
Rikakis is the founder of Emerge, an event that first took place at Arizona State University. Featuring noted science fiction writer Neal Stephenson and visionary geek Bruce Sterling, the event also brought together scientists, artists and designers. The primary goal was to bring together experts from multiple disciplines, recognizing that purely quantitative solutions can’t fully tackle the complex issues we’re faced with in the modern era.
Rikakis points out that QS technology allows us for the first time in human history to embed computing in every part of our lives. The value of the quantified self will be amplified when we recognize how qualitative measures complement big data.
For his work in interactive neurorehabilitation, Rikakis uses highly advanced tools to track 44 kinematic parameters of the effected upper limbs of stroke survivors. He says data from these kinematic measures and their relation to functional outcomes is an essential step towards promoting recovery. But to be effective, this data needs to be combined with the qualitative observations of a therapist and filtered through the relationship of therapist-patient.
“We have to keep in mind that there’s information that does not go through data but via human interaction,” says Rikakis. “It goes from community to community that has a richness that’s hard to quantify.”
Don’t Worry, Be App-y
We’re amidst an era when sensor technology and the maturation of smartphones means data is being collected about your actions in ways that have never existed before. There are no universal privacy and identity standards, which means your unwilling contributions to big data are being shaped by forces you can’t control.
The good news: Getting familiar with quantified self applications will benefit personal and community self-awareness. You’ll understand how to better shape your identity in this new virtual economy and learn the quantitative metrics that derive their fullest context when seen through a qualitative lens.