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Tag: Quantified Self

Anytime We Consider Anything Less than Everything, We Are Missing Something.


When we design today, we isolate problems and then create solutions for them, and we then celebrate those solutions. But in reality we have no idea exactly what we’ve done, because in focusing on any particular problem we have really just ignored everything else. We have failed to engage with the complex realities of our interconnected world, and in our attempts at solutions have only created more problems, the cumulative effect of which can be devastating.

When we really understanding the implications of this idea, we soon realize that in our design of anything, we must consider everything. There is no part of the entire system that isn’t affected by every other part of the entire system. This idea became very clear to me while working in healthcare. You can’t solve for a particular condition in isolation… it interacts in complex ways with the system of rest of the body. When you consider the entire body, and you soon realize that you can’t solve for the health of the individual in isolation… it interacts in complex ways with the social systems, culture, the environment, and on and on. Changes to any part of that system can have dramatic, complex, unforeseen, unintended, and often unknown consequences in other parts of the system.

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One Doctor’s View of Personal Science: You Won’t Learn Anything.

Bryan Castañeda, who lives in Southern California, told me this:

The law firm I work at specializes in toxic torts. We represent people who have been occupationally exposed to chemicals and are now sick, dying, or dead. Most of our clients have been exposed to benzene and developed some kind of leukemia. We sponsor various leukemia charities, walks, and other events. [On January 21, 2012] in Woodland Hills, CA, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society held its first annual Blood Cancer Conference. Although the speakers were mainly doctors, it was a conference meant for laymen. The chair was an oncologist from UCLA Medical Center.

After introductory remarks and the keynote speaker, there were several breakout sessions. I attended a session on acute lymphoblastic leukemia and acute myeloid leukemia. The speaker was [Dr. Ravi Bhatia,] a doctor specializing in leukemia from City of Hope in Duarte, CA. His talk was almost exclusively about new drugs and clinical trials. Very dry and dull. Things got more interesting during the question period. At one point, [Dr. Bhatia] told an attendee not to experiment on his own because “you won’t learn anything and others won’t learn from it, either.”

I would have liked to ask Dr. Bhatia three questions:

1. What’s the basis for this extreme claim (“you won’t learn anything and others won’t learn from it”)? Ben Williams, a psychology professor at UC San Diego, wrote a whole book (Surviving “Terminal” Cancer, 2002) about taking an active approach when faced with a very serious disease (in his case, brain cancer). Likewise, the website Patients Like Me is devoted to (among other things) learning from the experimentation of its members. Lots of forums related to various illnesses spread what one person learns to others. MedHelp has many forums devoted to sharing knowledge.

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The Rise of the Programmable Self

Programmable self is a riff on the Quantified Self (QS). It is a simple concept:

Quantify what you want to change about yourself + motivational hacks = personal change success.

There are several potential “motivation hacks” that people regularly employ. The simplest of these is peer pressure. You could tell all of your co-workers every morning whether you kept your diet last night, for instance. Lots of research has shown that sort of thing is an effective motivator for change. Of course, you can make peer pressure digital by doing the same thing on Facebook/Twitter/Google+/whatever. Peer pressure has two components: shame and praise. It’s motivating to avoid shame and to get praise. Do it because of a tweet and viola, you have digital peer pressure motivation.

Several books have recently popularized using money, in one form or another, as a motivational tool. There is some evidence, for instance, that people feel worse about losing $10 than they feel good about earning $10. This is called loss aversion, and it can easily be turned into a motivational hack. Having trouble finishing that book? Give 10 envelopes with $100 each to your best friend. Instruct them to mail the envelopes to your favorite (or most hated) charity for each month that you do not finish a chapter. Essentially, you’ve made your friend a “referee” of your motivational hack.

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Acne Cured by Self-Experimentation

In November, at Quantified Self Europe, Martha Rotter, who lives in Ireland, gave a talk about how she cured her acne by self-experimentation. She summarizes her talk like this (slides here):

When I moved to Ire­land in 2007, I began to have skin prob­lems. It began gradu­ally and I attrib­uted it to the move, to stress, to late nights drink­ing with developers and cli­ents, to travel, to whatever excuses I could think of. The stress was mul­ti­plied by the anxi­ety of being embar­rassed about how my face looked, but also because my new job in Ire­land involved me being on stage in front of large audi­ences con­stantly, often sev­eral times a week. A year later my skin was per­petu­ally inflamed, red, full of sores and very pain­ful. When one spot would go away, two more would spring up in its place. It was a tough time. I cried a lot.

Frus­trated, I went to see my homet­own der­ma­to­lo­gist while I was home for hol­i­days. He told me that a) this was com­pletely nor­mal and b) there was noth­ing I could do but go on anti­bi­ot­ics for a year (in addi­tion to spend­ing a for­tune on creams and pills). I didn’t believe either of those things.

I was not inter­ested in being on an anti­bi­otic for a year, nor was I inter­ested in Accu­tane (my best friend has had it mul­tiple times and it hasn’t had long term res­ults, plus it can be risky). What I was inter­ested in was fig­ur­ing out why this was hap­pen­ing and chan­ging my life to make it stop. I refused to accept my dermatologist’s insist­ence that what you put in your body has no effect on how you look and feel.

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From Couch Potato to Quantified Self

I’ve been interested in the growing population of folks who self-track objective data for health purposes.  The phenomenon is referred to either as personal informatics or the Quantified Self.  Both concepts have a following and both are intimately tied into the value of connected health.  Connected Health adds value in two fundamental ways:  self–care and just-in-time care.  In both cases, objective, quantified data is a critical piece of success.   For those individuals who are even a bit motivated to improve their health, quantified, objective information leads to insights that prompt behavior change.

I had a chance the other day to catch up with Gary Wolf, who is one of the founders of Quantifiedself.com, a frequent contributor to the New York Times Sunday Magazine and a Contributing Editor at Wired.  We had an inspiring discussion about the intersections of Quantified Self and Connected Health.

Gary was a bit out of breath, having just wrapped up the first Quantified Self Conference in Mountain View, CA.  Gary was very excited about the conference and its impact.  More than 100 projects were presented, 60 talks were given and more than 25% of participants presented.  When I asked him what was ‘the hook,’ i.e. why is QS taking off so fast, his response was that, “people are reaching the realization/hope that personal data have personal meaning.”  We both agree that the growing interesting in quantification is bringing us beyond the ‘data is geeky’ stage to an era where there is a real movement around the collection of data and the use of that data to gain insight about health and affect behavior change.Continue reading…

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…