Sunday, September 14, 2008

Software to extract meaning out of life's trivia

Here's a very interesting article in Washington Post, that ties in to some degree with Clive Thompson's article on ambient awareness (discussed in my previous blog post):

Bytes of Life: For Every Move, Mood and Bodily Function, There's a Web Site to Help You Keep Track

It reflects a lot of my own thoughts about what part data plays in our lives, and how it could let us get much more out of life.

"In San Diego, statistics student David Horn [...] is working with his engineer girlfriend, Lisa Brewster, to develop an all-encompassing life tracker, under the working title of "I Did Stuff."

I would like to have these guys' job. They want to track and record everything -- everything that happens in their lives, down to (or especially) the most mundane events.

It's been known for a long time, and a recent study confirmed, that keeping a diary recording every bite they ate helped people to lose weight. And therapists recommend people who have trouble sleeping to record what they ate, drank, and did before sleep, to see if a trend emerges that shows a correlation between certain foods / activities and insomnia. Also, keeping track of your time minute-by-minute -- writing down all activities, no matter how mundane -- may allow you to see where all your time goes, if you feel you have no time for anything in your life. So there is a well-established practical use for navel-gazing, that predates the internet. And the internet made it infinitely easier to record your daily events, both the kind you do consciously (Brightkite for tracking your location, for driving habits, to map food intake and calorie expenditure, for listening habits, and even BedPost for sex life), and the kind your body does autonomously (sites for tracking heart rate and blood glucose levels, or the self-explanatory :-))

But these two researchers want to take it much further.

Tracking not just what you did, but what you got out of it

[...] David Horn already belongs to BrightKite, and, which tracks his Internet usage. He's also experimented with to map food intake and calorie expenditure. It was satisfying for a while, but now he wants something bigger -- something simultaneously broader and more nitpicky -- to fill in the gaps that individual sites don't currently track.

Horn is working with his engineer girlfriend, Lisa Brewster, to develop an all-encompassing life tracker, under the working title of "I Did Stuff."

"I'd like to track the people I talk to," says Brewster, "and how inspired I am six hours later. And definitely location history -- where I am, what time -- "

"Correlated with weather history," interjects Horn. "And allergy data, pollen and mold in the air."

Plus, "Web sites I read and their effect," says Brewster. "If I spend a long time reading a blog, like TechCrunch, but I don't get noticeable output from it."

At first the author of this article is boggled by this level of self-indulgent navel-gazing, but then she seems to understand what it is about. The usefulness of tracking is of course not in the raw data (who would have the time to re-read their life at the same pace as they are living it? :-)) but in extracting trends that would help you correlate perceptions with facts.

Has it really been a month since you last had sex, or does it just feel like that? Did you really floss five times last week, or was it more like twice? Now that you realize that, are you a little less angry at your dentist for that painful last appointment?

Analysis of mundane events reveals profound trends in one's life

Self-tracking [...] is partly about the recording, but also as much about the analysis that goes on after the recording.

The apparent meaninglessness of data recorded over time is actually what makes it profound.

The problem with diaries and blogs, trackers say, is that people use them to record the events they think are meaningful. What they forget is that meaningful events are often a result of months of insignificance, a cause and effect not readily visible to the human eye but easily detected with the help of a computer program.

"Things that happen over time can lead up to bigger events," says Horn. "They may seem small by themselves, but looking at them as a whole I can see how they lead to a bigger theme or idea."

"I was always a terrible self-journaler," says Messina. "Every once in a while I'd write in a journal, but it was always a major, momentous event. 'Got to college.' 'Broke up with girlfriend.' You lose a lot of the nuance that caused that situation to come about."

Tracking can "zoom out over my entire life," he says. It could, for example, help him better understand the aforementioned breakup. "When you've self-documented the course of an entire relationship, trivia that doesn't seem like much could, over time," help him understand exactly what went wrong, and when.

Maybe, to extrapolate on Messina's idea, your weekly date night had been Friday. And maybe you were always in a tetchy mood on Fridays because you'd just come from chem lab, which you hated. Maybe the whole relationship could have been saved by switching date night to Sunday, after your endorphin-boosting yoga class. Maybe you just didn't realize the pattern, because you weren't tracking it. All the answers could be right there, in your life data.

We can extrapolate even further. Perhaps the tracking software, if it was sophisticated enough, could notice increasing frequency and viciousness of arguments between you and your significant other, increasing frequency and length of time spent apart, and things like that. The software could flag it to you as a warning sign that the relationship is in danger. Then you could take steps to get it back on track. You might say most people don't need software to tell them when their relationship is off track; however, I think people often ignore warning signs -- sometimes wilfully, sometimes out of inertia. Inertia certainly plays a huge part in everything we do. We would rather keep a mental image of things as they were at their most comfortable, or downplay the significance of worrisome events, than acknowledge the truth that something is going astray. Life-tracking software could point out discrepancies between our partner's words and actions. It could force us to pay attention to those signs before it is too late.

The software could also give us tools to defuse certain recurring arguments which, if unexamined, tend to pick up destructive strength like a hurricane crossing the Gulf of Mexico. :-) You could look at the software and say: "we've had this discussion before; here is what was said; here is the conclusion we have reached. Do you have any new information that would give us a reason to revisit this issue?"

Of course, there are a lot of people -- most people, perhaps -- who would hate the idea of having their every word or phrase recorded, and of those records being resurrected as evidence (even by people they trust). I'm sure some people might think it diminishes their relationship somehow. But how could truth diminish it? Anyway, that's a social engineering problem, though those are often harder than computer engineering. Among the latter, a major problem would be to find a way to structure the data so as to capture its essential qualities. For example, how would you compute the intensity of the four horsemen of Apocalypse (made famous by John Gottman): Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling? How do you quantify formless, deeply subjective data? How do you even decide what to measure? It would be a tough task, but one I would gladly spend years working on, if I didn't have to worry about making a living. :-)

In fact, if I had come of age at the time of Web 2.0., I would seriously consider going to grad school so that I could do this project as my thesis / dissertation. I would probably find a professor somewhere in some university who could get interested in this idea enough to serve as my advisor. (I've seen people in computer science departments doing stranger projects than that. Or if not in computer science, then surely in the interdisciplinary studies. :-))

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