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The Quantified Self and the Future of Health Care

The  Quantified Self is a global collaboration of users and tool-makers interested in the personal meaning of personal data. There are now Quantified Self groups in more than twenty cities around the world. Our inspiration is the Homebrew Computer Club. Once upon a time, computers were thought to be useful only for scientists, managers, and planners. But a few people saw things differently: they argued that computers were for  all of us. That notion seemed very strange. What would an ordinary person do with a computer? But it turned out that the personal uses of computers were not just an important use, but the most important use.

We at the Quantified Self think of data the same way. Nearly every day, we hear about a new system to track human behavior. There is sensor-based tracking of sleepactivitylocationheart rateblood glucosemetabolism, even facial expression. There are web services to track mooddietmenstrual cycleproductivity, and  cognition. (This is just a sample, to give a sense of range, and not an endorsement of any particular approach.) Often, when I talk to my friends in the health care field, they are eager to know how exploring these tools might be justified in conventional health care terms: return on investment, treatment outcomes, patient compliance, etc. This managerial view of data is part of the important conversation that happens every day on the The Health Care Blog. But for the remainder of this post, I’d like to ask you put these questions aside. Seeing something of the big culture change happening outside health care might prove useful for solving some of the seemingly intractable problems inside it.

There are three reasons people track themselves:

They have a specific goal, such as losing weight, keeping fit, sleeping better, ameliorating a chronic condition, or training for an athletic competition.
They are generally curious. Surprisingly often, people find their tracking data valuable even in the absence of narrowly-defined utility. These self-trackers see their data as a kind of mirror on the self, helpful in maintaining overall self-awareness. (Like keeping a diary.)

They want to establish a baseline with which to measure future changes. This often goes along with a belief that the data will become more powerful over time. Personal data, in this sense, is an investment that will pay off in the future, and is part of an exploratory, pioneering worldview.Continue reading…

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