Personal Informatics Blog

Self-Tracking Tools Review 3

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I wrote and posted this article originally on the Quantified Self blog on November 15, 2010.

In this review, I will take the considerations that I wrote about in my last article to analyze some self-tracking tools. The considerations are: 1) What questions are the tool answering? 2) How is the data collected? and 3) How do you reflect on the data? I'm also adding a fourth consideration, data portability, as suggested by Jason Bobe .

Track Your Happiness

Track Your Happiness is a research project by Matthew Killingsworth who works in Dan Gilbert's lab in Harvard. The research project gives you the tools to find the factors in your life that leads to greater happiness. According to the site, the tool will produce a report that "will show how your happiness varies depending on what you are doing, who you are with, where you are, what time of day it is, and a variety of other factors." I used the tool for a month and the report showed me the correlation of sleep quality and quantity on my happiness and other factors such as how focused I am, whether I'm doing something I want to vs. have to, and how productive I am.

Collection. The way that Track Your Happiness collects information is via your iPhone or smart phone. The site sends you a random text message three times a day (the frequency is editable). The text message contains a link to a web page which has a form that asks you various questions about how happy you are and what is currently happening with you. After completing the form, you get a graph that gives you a taste of the full report; the graph shows you the correlation (so far) between your happiness and a randomly-selected factor. This was a nice addition because it encourages you to keep inputting data as the study progresses 1.

Reflection. At the end of a month of data collection, Track Your Happiness will produce a report with graphs of the correlations between different factors and your happiness. Despite enduring a whole month of interruptions from the text messages and answering the questionnaire, the whole experience was worth it for the report. The report is very easy to read despite the sheer amount of data that was collected about me in a month. In my report, the correlation between my happiness and my sleep quality/quantity was very strong.

Data Portability. The graphs in the report are printable. Even after a year of seeing my report, I could still access it by logging in. Unfortunately, the individual data points that I recorded are not available.

Mint

Mint is a web site for tracking your finances. But unlike tracking your finances from your bank web site, Mint gives you the tools to track your finances from multiple accounts, such as your bank, credit card, loans, even investments. With Mint, you'd be able to get a holistic view of your finances from month to month and answer questions, such as where are you spending your money? Are you spending too much on non-essentials? Are you reaching your budget goals?

Collection. The collection of financial data is already done by the accounts; your banks, credit cards, and investments already have records of your financial transactions. What Mint does is gather all this information from multiple sources into a single service. The setup is quite easy. You provide your account information and Mint handles the transferring of data from your multiple accounts. At this point, you might be weary about security, but the Mint folks have taken good measures to protect your account information .

Reflection. Mint automatically categorizes your transactions and provides various visualization tools to help you analyze where you are spending your money. First, Mint provides a graphic that shows how you are doing with your budget for the month. The graphic is very easy to use and can be viewed at-a-glance. Second, Mint provides visualization timelines and pie charts, so you can explore your financial history over a long period of time and view specific details of your transactions. Lastly, Mint sends alerts and messages to inform you of pending payments, low balances, and opportunities to save.

Data portability. Mint does not provide an API to get your financial data directly from them. However, there are several ways to get your financial data:

  1. You can go to each of your financial institutions and download the data from them directly.
  2. Yodlee , a financial data aggregation company, provides tools to developers to make applications that use data from financial institutions. Yodlee served as a backend to Mint. However, since the Intuit acquision of Mint, I don't know if Yodlee is still Mint's backend provider. Yodlee provides a service called Yodlee MoneyCenter that is similar to what Mint offers.

Wrap up

These reviews have been quite lengthy, so, for readability's sake, I will only talk about two today. Then, I will review two more tools this week. Again, please leave comments below regarding your experiences with the tools I mentioned.

Footnote

1 I've actually done a study that shows that having visualizations while collecting data helps with keeping the user actively collecting data ( view paper | citation ).

Why Should You Self-Track?

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I wrote and posted this article originally on the HealthTap blog on November 13, 2010.

If you’re new to this blog or new to the idea of self-tracking, you’re probably wondering why? Why should you self-track? This is a valid question. Self-tracking might cost you a few bucks and might require a long time commitment. Why should you spend your time and money to self-track? In this article, I will describe several reasons why you should self-track.

Know thyself

On the entrance to the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, carved in stone was the inscription Gnothi seauton. This Greek aphorism means “Know thyself.” People of Ancient Greece who wanted to see the Oracle to solve their problems would see this phrase first upon arrival as if to tell them that the solution to their problem is right under their noses; you just need to know yourself. This phrase and the concept of self-knowledge was passed on from Ancient Greece to now as an ideal in philosophy. Of course, self-knowledge not that easy. Careful introspection and reflection is required to know oneself. However, today we can use technology to help us a little bit in our effort to know ourselves. Self-tracking tools can help us observe and analyze our behavior and habits that can be sensed and tracked by devices.

Benjamin Franklin

Did you know that Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, was an avid self-tracker? In his twenties, Benjamin Franklin wrote 13 virtues that he believed leads to a good, productive life. These virtues were: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. He strived to live by these virtues. To do so, he tracked his adherence to the virtues. At the end of each day, he marked the virtues that he missed. In the example, he missed the virtues of sincerity, order, and resolution on Friday. He did this for the rest of his life and I think he had plenty to show for it.

If you want to track your accomplishment of these 13 virtues, join the self-tracking web site that I created, Be Like Ben Just click the link and join!

Research

There’s plenty of research that shows the value of self-tracking on changing behavior. For example, pedometers have been shown to increase physical activity among wearers. The graphs of your electricity usage in your electricity bill is a result of research that shows the value of such graphs on energy conservation. Among diabetes patients, tracking their blood sugar level is an important aspect of their diabetes maintenance. If you want to find more research about self-tracking, visit the Personal Informatics Articles page . This page lists the many research papers relevant to self-tracking.

If you have your own reasons why you self-track, please leave them in the comments below.

Self-Tracking Tools Review 2

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I wrote and posted this article originally on the Quantified Self blog on November 8, 2010.

This is the second article of a series where I review several self-tracking tools. I will go on a little tangent this week. To make it clear what I look for in different tools, I will discuss the different aspects of self-tracking tools to consider when making a selection. These considerations are based on my own experience tracking myself, feedback from users of tools that I've built, and from my research in human-computer interaction and personal informatics .

First thing to consider is what question about yourself are you trying to answer and would the self-tracking tool collect the right data to answer your question. For example, you might be interested in losing some weight. Your first thought might be to get a pedometer to start tracking your daily step counts. However, your physical activity (or lack thereof) is only one of the factors that might be causing your weight gain; your diet, how busy you are, stress, and other aspects of your lifestyle may also contribute. Determining what information to collect is critical because you will be spending significant time during the next week or two collecting data. You want your collected data to be full of insight. Here are some web pages to help you:

The second thing to consider is how you want to collect the data. Data collection is one of the most time-consuming aspects of self-tracking, so you want to pick the tool that works best with your time constraints and comfort level. The following are some of the properties of devices or services relevant to data collection.

  • Is the data manually-collected or automatically-collected? For example, your bank account and credit card history are automatically-collected. Mint and Quicken leverage these data and add another level of automation by combining all of your accounts into one interface. On the other hand, there are many many financial tools that require you to manually enter data, such as MoneyBook , GnuCash .
  • Do you have to wear or carry a device? This aspect is probably domain-specific. You don't need to wear a device to track your spending, moods, and electricity usage, but tracking physiological data such as physical activity, heart rate, blood sugar level, etc. require wearing devices everyday. Having to wear a device requires considering comfort, visibility, and robustness of the device. To illustrate the differences between devices, I will describe some physical activity tools with varying degrees of wearability:
    • Heart rate monitors - These devices provide plenty of specific data about physical exertion, but you have to wear them around your chest, so you probably wouldn't wear them all day. These devices are usually worn by serious athletes while training.
    • Bodymedia SenseWear armband - This device also provides plenty of specific data about physical activity. You have to wear the device around your biceps, so it's very noticeable even when wearing a long-sleeve shirt. This is another tool that you won't wear all day long, but would be useful during training times.
    • iPod nano - I mentioned this device in my last review . Its small form factor is ideal for tracking your physical activity all day. The device might still be noticeable clipped to your shirt or to your pants pocket, but it's not too bothersome because many people carry their music players with them.
    • Fitbit - This is the device that is probably the most inconspicuous of the 4 devices mentioned here. The device is even smaller than the iPod nano and can be easily hidden. Additionally, synching your data online is done automatically just by being near the Fitbit base station.
  • Are you prompted to collect data? Most web sites where you manually collect data is voluntary. You visit the site on your own time and manually enter your data. If you want to minimize interruptions in your life, you may want this, but you definitely risk having sparse data. Some services provide alerts to prompt you to record. To illustrate the difference, I will use two mood tracking services: MoodJam and TrackYourHappiness.org . With MoodJam, you have to remember to go to the web site to record your mood. On the other hand, TrackYourHappiness.org sends you an SMS message 3-5 times a day. Since TrackYourHappiness is also a study that requires participation over several weeks, you will need to be patient with the service.

The last thing to consider is how you want to reflect on the data. There are different ways in which you can reflect on your data. The tool can provide visualizations or the tool can be more proactive by sending you alerts with suggestions and tips on what you should do. Here are some questions to ask about this aspect of tools (I will use electricity tracking tools to describe each aspect):

  • Does the tool provide the necessary views into your data, so you can keep aware of what's happening with you right now? For example, Kill-A-Watt has a display, so you can immediately see how much electricity an appliance is using.
  • Does the tool provide the necessary visualizations to help you explore your data deeply and find insights into your data? Kill-A-Watt does not provide visualizations, but Holmes , the companion tool to Wattson , has visualizations to allow you to look at trends and patterns of your electricity usage over the past 28 days.
  • Does the system provide alerts, suggestions, and tips based on your data? In addition to helping you track your energy consumption, WattzOn allows you to compare and discuss your energy consumption with others. The energy consumption tracking is not automated like Wattson, but the community aspect is helpful in getting suggestions and tips on how to reduce energy consumption.

I'm sure there are more things to consider when self-tracking, but this should be a good list to start with when starting your self-tracking regimen. Leave notes in the comments section for other considerations that you think are important.

More information

Bio

Ian Li is a PhD candidate in Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University . His research is on HCI and personal informatics . He is the creator of various self-tracking tools, such as: PersonalInformatics.org , Grafitter , MoodJam , Be Like Ben , and DeliciousDiscovery .

Self-Tracking Tools Review 1

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I wrote and posted this article originally on the Quantified Self blog on November 1, 2010.

This is the first part of a series in which I will review several self-tracking tools. For each tool, I will highlight the features of the tool to help you track and explore data about yourself. There are two goals for these reviews: 1) we want to help users find the right tools for them; and 2) we want to encourage sharing of experiences with these different tools.

Zeo

Zeo is a sleep tracking device, which has two parts. First, there is a black headband that you wear around your head while you sleep. This headband contains the sleep sensors. From my own experience, the headband is comfortable to wear. Second, there is the base station that stores the data from the headband. The base station also serves as the primary way to see your data. In big digital letters, the display shows your personal sleep score or ZQ score and the amount of time you were in REM sleep, light sleep, and deep sleep. The base station can store your ZQ score for two weeks. If you want to look at your data in depth, the Zeo allows you to upload your data to your computer, where you can use visualizations to explore your data. To do this, you have to take the SD card from the base station and transfer the files to your computer. This can be tedious if you must do it everyday, but acceptable if you only want to look at your data on your computer once a week. The display in the base station is usually sufficient for getting a daily sense of your sleep quality. In addition to using Zeo as a way to track your sleep quality, you can also use it as a smart alarm clock. The Zeo will wake you up at you "natural awakening point" based on your sleep patterns.

More info:

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iPod nano

I don't know how many people know this, but iPod nanos have a built in pedometer. Using an iPod nano for step counting has several benefits. First, since most people carry their iPods all day, they can track their step counts all day. Second, the iPod nano's small form factor is not a bother to wear. Just clip it on and you will hardly notice it throughout the day. Lastly, you can even keep listening to music all day while you're exercising and the battery will still last all day.

Unlike the Nike+iPod sport kit, you don't have to buy a specialized Nike shoe with an insert. However, if you already have a Nike+iPod sport kit, you can also use the kit with your iPod nano. At the end of the day when you're done tracking your step counts, you can upload all your data to the Nike+ web site where you can set your daily step goals and check your progress. The web site also has social networking features, so you can share your physical activity information with your friends.

More info:

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Foursquare and WhereDoYouGo

FourSquare is a service that makes it easy for you to track the places that you go. You can "check-in" to places that you visit using your mobile phone, such as the iPhone, Android, Blackberry, etc. Foursquare describes itself as "a friend finder, a social city guide, and a game that challenges users to experience new things and rewards them for doing so."

Did you know you can also use Foursquare to learn which places you frequent the most? Foursquare itself doesn't have the interface to explore your location data, but Steven Lehrburger has created such an interface. Steven created WhereDoYouGo , a web site that visualizes your FourSquare checkins using heat maps. Heat maps are visualizations that use color to indicate frequency of visits to a particular location. Using WhereDoYouGo, you can easily find which places you frequent most often on a map. To use, just visit the site and follow the authentication process. While it's a litttle complicated because you have to authenticate twice using Google and Foursquare, the visualization is worth it. When you generate your visualizations, check which neighborhood you "check-in" the most. Is it what you expected? Check for the outliers. Which places did you go that is off the beaten path? From what you see, which places do you think you should visit next? You can also share your visualizations by sharing the links generated by the service.

For developers who are interested in the how the service was created, Stephen has graciously provided the code on GitHub .

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Last.fm and LastHistory

Last.fm is a music recommendation web site, but it's also a great way to track your music listening habits. Last.fm has even created a word for the activity of tracking the music that you listen to: scrobbling. When you install Last.fm's Scrobbler application, you can track the music that you listen to iTunes, Winamp, and even on your iPhone and Android phones. Last.fm provides an RSS feed, so you can share the music that you listened to recently.

Last.fm doesn't provide an interface for you to explore your listening behavior in depth, but there are several tools that developers have created, which you can find at build.last.fm. In this review, I will highlight LastHistory, a desktop application that visualizes your music listening histories from Last.fm. Unfortunately, the application is only available on the Mac OS X. The application creates an interactive visualization to help you explore your past music listening patterns combined with your own photos and calendar entries. The tool has two modes: Analysis and Personal. In Analysis mode, you can look at your history in three dimensions: time, tracks, and genres. You can search, highlight, zoom, and get detailed information about your history. In Personal mode, you can explore your data along with your iPhoto library and calendar entries from iCal. This mode can help you reminisce about your past in more detail.

For developers who are interested in building applications with Last.fm, there is an API to access user data .

More info:

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Bio

Ian Li is a PhD candidate in Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University . His research is on HCI and personal informatics. He is the creator of various self-tracking tools, such as: PersonalInformatics.org , Grafitter , MoodJam , Be Like Ben , and DeliciousDiscovery .