Fitbit needed for 7,000 year-old caveman

February 13, 2014 | Posted in Latest News

La Brana man

Back in 2006, a group of mountaineers climbing in north-west Spain stumbled upon the body of an ancient human man. Carbon dating put La Brana man – named after the cave in which he was discovered – at having lived about 7,000 years ago. He died in his early thirties and would have lived around the Cantabrian mountain region.

La Brana man was dark-skinned, had black or dark brown hair, yet he had jarringly blue eyes. He was also likely lactose intolerant, so you wouldn’t have wanted to be around him after a tub of Ben & Jerry’s. We know such specific details about a person who was quite literally a ‘caveman’ because fragments of his DNA were well-preserved by the cool, dry atmosphere of the cave, and researchers have been able to piece together his genome. Such is the power of DNA.

One mantra of the Quantified Self movement is the pursuit of improvement through self-knowledge – using the personal data collected through self-tracking to help improve overall well-being. And if you believe the hype of Big Data (and let’s be honest….we all do) these enormous datasets will soon be mined to unravel the secrets of what makes us tick and the actions we can take to improve our health and longevity. This is one of the ambitious aims which Quantid has in its crosshairs (click here to support our campaign).

Self-tracking revolves around the personal data we generate as we go about our day-to-day lives: the amount we sleep, the distance run, our weight and blood glucose levels. But to extract powerful correlations and trends from this quantified personal data and identify actionable behaviour change, we must also know the fundamental aspects of who we are. Like La Brana man, data on our ethnicity, gender, physical traits and susceptibility to various diseases and medical conditions are essentials. Two separate individuals might show very similar patterns in their self-tracking data, but if one is a Caucasian female with diabetes while the other is an Asian male with a nut allergy, the recommendations for health improvements might be widely different.

The obvious way to collect information on physiological traits is self-reporting. We’ve all filled out surveys that have asked about our ethnicity, health status, and the medical conditions we suffer from. But self-reporting is subjective. Ethnicity is a good example: just because someone identifies as Caucasian, doesn’t mean their ancestry is 100% white. My 23andMe results show that I’m 51% European, 42% African and 2% Native American. You can see how inaccurate it’d be were I to self-report as purely ‘White’, ‘Black’ or ‘Asian’.

Furthermore, none of us can’t report on our susceptibility to various medical conditions until these conditions actually manifest themselves, or are revealed through specific tests. A predisposition to obesity or high cholesterol will probably go unnoticed until our bathroom scale is continually delivering bad news, or our blood tests report persistently high LDL.

All our physiological traits are contained within each of individual genomes and I think incorporating DNA information is one of the most exciting aspects of the quantified-self phenomenon. Armed with our complete genome, the analytics engines which are set loose on our personal datasets will have access to awesomely granular information on our gender, race, anatomy, disease susceptibility and much more. And as future research forces the genome to reveal even more of its secrets, these analytic functions will become ever more powerful.

It’s an enjoyable pastime of tech enthusiasts to make extravagant predictions about our technological future, never seeming to notice that our flying cars have not yet materialized. But I think it’s hard to overstate the impact which the marriage of genetic information and quantified data like sleep, mood and activity, will have on driving us towards longer, more healthy and more happy lives. So we’ve got hold of La Brana man’s DNA, now all we need is to find his fitbit.

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5 Reasons why you should be self-tracking

August 15, 2013 | Posted in Self-tracking

Benefits of self-tracking

Watching ‘Monitor Me’, the BBC Two documentary on self-tracking, got me reflecting on my reasons for leading a quantified life. The documentary did a decent job of outlining some benefits of self-tracking, but I’m not sure it hit home to the layman just how the pursuit helps us be more awesome. So here’re my top five reasons for why you should hop aboard the quantified self bandwagon.

1. Motivation
Lack of motivation it the number one obstacle hampering our pursuit of better health. It takes motivation to hit the gym after eight hours in the office. Motivation helps us swap that doughnut for a diet soda, and it turns 15 minutes of regular meditation from a chore into a habit.

Data showing exactly where you’ve come from and how you’re currently performing is a powerful antidote to poor motivation. As the trajectory of your weight creeps upwards, or your sleep quality tanks, it’s hard not to be forced into action.

2. Achieving Goals
In our ongoing pursuit of better health and wellbeing, we all have goals we’d like to achieve –whether it’s an ideal physique, more quality time spent with our family or smoking less. We all have personal destinations we’d like to reach.

Without self-tracking, goals are mushy and ethereal – it’s hard to work towards a target number, if you’re not entirely sure what your numbers currently look like. By associating a number with your goal – add 1cm to my biceps, keep my blood glucose below 5.5mmol/L – a blurry target comes sharply into focus and your current tracking data shows a clear path to the finish line.

3. Modifying Behaviour
We all suspect that certain behaviours trigger a negative reaction – that glass of wine might be the reason for my crappy sleep; driving to the office instead of cycling is probably the cause of my more stressful day. But for most of us, these suspected triggers remain just that – ‘suspected’.

Quantified Self turns ‘suspecting’ into ‘knowing’. And when you know that a certain action will trigger a specific reaction, it strengthens our awareness and makes it psychologically easier to avoid detrimental behaviour to begin with.

4. Self-Awareness
The Greeks got it right more than ten centuries ago with the famous aphorism, “Know thyself”. An intrinsic understanding of what makes us tick – what makes us happy, what causes us stress – should be a top pursuit, simply because it allows us to optimise our lifestyle to achieve a constant state of awesomeness.

A profound sense of self-awareness is a by-product of the quantified experience. Trends in your behaviour become clearer, and will likely influence your future actions. Think about it….what happens when you notice you’re reporting lower happiness whenever you’re with your spouse; or discover that 85% of your day is spent in the office? The data doesn’t lie. These realisations might be uncomfortable and force some tough decisions, but the change will be for the better.

5. Better Diagnosis
Doctors make their diagnoses with the information they have available – a combination of patient records, reported symptoms and lab results. But this is an incomplete dataset. With access to a patient’s self-tracking numbers, doctors are equipped with a more holistic view of their state of health, enabling the practitioner to make better diagnoses and decide more optimal lines of treatment.

Doctors will probably be resistant to introduction of this new patient data. The effective use of self-tracking data is not yet taught in medical school. But as the cost-saving potential of QS data is increasingly exploited by healthcare trusts, hospitals and insurance companies, and technologies emerge to help practitioners extract meaning from the deluge of patient data, the medical community will come to embrace it.

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So there you go….five reasons for you to get started on your quantified self journey. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

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Why the ‘Quantified Environment’ is essential for quantified self

August 8, 2013 | Posted in Quantified Self

The quantified environment

We in Britain love to complain about the weather. While other cultures might enquire about your family or your health, Brits will typically start a conversation with a meteorological observation, normally involving some permutation of the words “cold”, “wet” and “grey”. But now, the glorious sunshine that’s showering much of the country has led to complaints about the heat and humidity. In the UK, children aspire to become weather presenters.

The Brits’ masterful accounting of the weather highlights an interesting aspect about Quantified Self – environmental factors are an important part of the self-tracking experience. QS is fundamentally egocentric, but it’s not solely about quantifying our behaviour and activity, it’s also quantifying the external activity impacting us.

Weather is a key component of the ‘Quantified Environment’. Weather includes a host of parameters that affect us in several ways, both directly and indirectly. Rain in the morning means we might ride the metro into work, instead of a bicycle; a dry, low humidity day might have us reaching for the skin moisturiser; our sleep might suffer if an early sunrise floods our bedroom at 6AM; and the pollen count will determine whether a hay fever suffer spends the day smiling smugly or sneezing supersonically.

When designing Quantid, we saw support for weather as vital, and the app allows our users to easily track 11 individual weather metrics without requiring any manual data input. It’s all done seamlessly. Every day, the mobile app grabs your location and collects your local weather data from our meteorological information partner, feeding these measurements directly into your account. Metrics include sunrise time, precipitation intensity, cloud cover and humidity.

Playing around with the analysis tools on Quantid, I noticed an interesting correlation. During the recent heat wave here in London, I can see a relationship between the day’s maximum temperature and my number of ‘Awakenings’ as reported by my fitbit – higher temperatures appear to be causing more restless sleep. My duration of sleep does not seem to be affected, just my restlessness throughout the night. Armed with this insight, if we’re again blessed with 30°C temperatures, I’ll seriously consider buying a fan to help improve my sleep.

Environment is more than just weather – it’s everything in our surroundings which impacts us. Take noise for example. As I’m typing this blog, I have the drilling and hammering of my neighbour’s home renovation piercing my ears. For the past three weeks, they’ve been starting every morning at 8AM sharp, making a lie-in out of the question.

So how do we track noise on Quantid? Again, we take advantage of the fact that your phone is with you at all times. Mappiness is one of the several apps which Quantid supports. Personally, it is my favourite app for tracking mood because you configure it to randomly ping you throughout the day to rate you mood on a simple sliding scale. The cool thing about Mappiness is that as you make your mood rating, it also measures the level of background noise using the phone’s microphone. So, in addition to collecting your mood ratings from Mappiness, Quantid also collects your noise data.

I think the Quantified Environment is an exciting aspect of the QS movement, and there are a number of gadgets aiming to exploit the opportunity. Wimotos are tiny devices which you wear, or place around your property, for sensing temperature, humidity and light.  The Canadian company recently raised $115,000 in an Indiegogo campaign and is promising the products before year-end. And it’s only a matter of time before similarly small sensors report on environmental parameters like pollution, UV radiation and level of various fumes and vapours.

What are your experiences with tracking an environmental parameter? What insights did you gain?

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You’re a Quantified Self-er and don’t even know it

July 4, 2013 | Posted in Latest News, Quantified Self

self-tracking

As with any new phenomenon that’s gradually emerging into the mainstream, the concept of self-tracking, or self-quantification, is not widely understood. The term can mean different things to different people and different communities. The quantified self (QS) movement would consider the regular measurement of any personal detail, regardless of how obscure, as a form of self-tracking. But my aunt recording her weight, exercise and diet sees this as simply part of achieving her goal of shedding a few pounds.

Defining ‘self-tracking’

Crystallizing out a definition for ‘self-tracking’ as it pertains to the new QS movement is important because it allows people to recognize that they’re in fact part of this growing community. So, I thought it’d be worth having a stab at defining what exactly self-tracking is:

“Self-tracking is the process of recording any aspect of your physical activity, cognition, wellbeing, lifestyle and environment as quantifiable data on a regular, ongoing basis, with the intention of identifying actionable changes that lead to self-improvement.”

Let’s break this definition down:

I think the categories of “activity, cognition, wellbeing, lifestyle and environment” are sufficiently broad to include virtually any personal aspect that someone would want to quantify and track about themselves, although I’m sure there’re individual metrics that fall between the gaps.

  • Activity covers all physical exercise and movement
  • Cognition relates to mental functions like memory and alertness
  • Wellbeing is perhaps the broadest category, covering all aspects of health – mood, blood markers, pain, medical conditions etc. – diet, medication and supplementation
  • Lifestyle is another broad category, and includes activity on Facebook, time spent commuting, or vices like smoking and gambling
  • Environment relates to your surrounding conditions, such as the weather (was it humid today?), pollen count and background noise

A fundamental aspect about personal measurements is that they’re quantifiable in some way. This is obvious for a metric like body weight, which is always expressed as a value with associated units (76kg), but less obvious for a cognitive metric like memory. Ultimately, whatever the metric, the measurement must be translatable into a numerical value. So, expressing memory on a particular day as “poor” can, for example, be numerically rated as 2 out of 5, on a scale where a value of 1 is ‘bad’ and 5 is ‘excellent’.

It might seem obvious, but there must be some degree of regularity in taking measurements. Noting your sleep duration a couple times, weeks apart, cannot be considered as self-tracking. But there needs to be some flexibility with frequency – a metric like sleep is best recorded daily, but applying the same regularity to your LDL cholesterol is probably overkill.

The final component of the definition might prove controversial: the aim of self-tracking, the reason for collecting these regular measurements, is to instigate some form of personal change. I think this aspect is necessary because, without it, rudimentary or incidental forms of data collecting, like a child’s height as it grows or your record of FourSquare check-ins, all become forms of self-tracking. But if these are not leveraged for self-improvement, they’re not strictly ‘self-tracking’.

With this definition it’s obvious QS is a much larger phenomenon than is recognized. Take a look at your own behavior. Are you tracking your weekly jog on Runkeeper? Is there a Jawbone UP or Nike Fuelband strapped to your wrist, or a fitbit in your pocket? Perhaps you’re using RescueTime to measure your productivity, or mappiness to track your mood? You might not know it, but you’re probably a Quantified Self-er. So, on behalf of the movement…welcome! Things are about to get pretty exciting.

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