Want to be happy? SMILE!

What unites poets, philosophers, psychologists, neurologists and economists? They all are interested in what makes us happy. Sure, they have their distinct perspectives: one is interested in people’s feelings, the other wants to know what people value and the latter is interested in how people’s brains respond to rewards. Even governments try to measure and increase the happiness of their citizens.

Measuring happiness is easier than you might think. First, we can ask people how they feel and have them rate that feeling on a scale. That’s what we do with our explore app day by day. Second, we can use MRI to measure blood flow in the brain, or EMG to evaluate and record the electrical activity produced by our skeletal “smile” muscles in the face. Very often, the results of the easy survey and those of the biomechanic treatments are highly correlated – that’s why we’re pretty content with our explore interaction results.

Then, there is this difference between synthetic happiness and real, or natural, happiness. We produce synthetic happiness when we don’t get what we want. The reason: things have less impact on happiness than we expect them to have. It seems that most experiences – bad and good ones – affect us for no longer than three months. Still, even synthetic happiness deserves to be regarded of equal value as the real happiness: people producing synthetic happiness don’t necessarily delude themselves but they find things that are even better than those they had before. Just think of those of us having chosen not to stick to their careers (they wouldn’t have become CEO, anyway), but to spend more time with their families.

If you had to summarize all the scientific literature on the causes for happiness in one word, it would be ‘social’. To tell something about a person’s happiness, we should know about her social graph, her family, her friends, and the strength of the network’s connections: the more people feel welcomed, accepted and loved, the happier they are.

So – what about the weakest links of your social network? What about the people you see, meet or with who you have social encounters in  one way or the other, day by day? Didn’t that woman stare at you? Why do these guys laugh after having looked at you? Why does the young man frown and shake his head constantly? We all ask ourselves questions like these. And the answers influence our own behavior and wellbeing, to a greater extent if our wellbeing mainly depends on our outside world, less if  we have learned to  build a strong foundation of our own wellbeing. The good thing about external effects on our happiness is that we aren’t exposed to them without active input from ourselves: we can influence these effects, we can even trigger them. Take some minutes and watch this video by Christine Rabette:

What do we see? Passengers in a Belgian metro are infected by the laughter of a single man. Watching this short film, one thing seems to be pretty evident: laughter is contagious. Not only – everyone will be laughing after a few minutes, but each individual seems to feel relieved. Each person seems to laugh about his or her own rather gloomy attitude before this funny guy started laughing. And don’t we know that feeling? Using public transport, on our daily way to work – the looks of many of us range from earnest to  gloomy. So – what about a smile, what about the effect of laughter on happiness? Does smiling at people make them happier? Does smiling make yourself happier?

Ron Gutman, Founder and CEO of HealthTap, certainly thinks so – you can persuade yourself watching the video below – whereas others like John M. Grohol, Founder and CEO of PsychCentral, are more skeptical – especially regarding the mixing up of correlations and causations.

There is one very interesting finding in the work of Ed Diener who shows that the frequency of our positive experiences is a much better predictor than the intensity of our positive experiences. In other words: the more often you can produce positive experiences the happier you will feel. And since most of our daily social contacts take place in our extended social network, using rather weak links, such as “I have seen this person” or “she asked me for directions”, it might make a lot of sense if we focus on exactly these ‘weak’ experiences of communication and try to transform them into positive experiences.  Keep in mind: the more often you have positive experiences, the happier you become.

As regarding happiness, a lot of scientific work has been done exploring the effects of a smile and I’ll show some of the results in one of my next posts. In a nice co-incidence, it now seems scientifically proven that a sense of humor can improve our health!

But for the moment I’d like to invite you to our experiment SMILE! – a 5-day-program based on the explore App helping you to start and keep smiling (at others) – and therefore creating several additional positive experiences a day. We invite you to participate and to check whether you will have become happier after 5 days. If you want to participate, just answer “Yes” in the interaction “Happiness” which will be published on June, 4, in explore. The first 25 volunteers are in!

Data Courtesy

Picture above: The court of Louis XVI is regared as the ecstasy of courtesy. Esprit, the bon-mot and the courtly attire had been overdone to an extend never to be reached again. The end: the terror – the most uncourtly form of social cohabition.

“Privacy invasion is now one of our biggest knowledge industries.”
“The more the data banks record about us, the less we exist.”
Marshall McLuhan

“Handle so, dass du die Menschheit sowohl in deiner Person, als in der Person eines jeden anderen jederzeit zugleich als Zweck, niemals bloß als Mittel brauchst.”
(“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end”)
Immanuel Kant

“Being socially exposed is OK when you hold a lot of privilege, when people cannot hold meaningful power over you, or when you can route around such efforts. Such is the life of most of the tech geeks living in Silicon Valley. But I spend all of my time with teenagers, one of the most vulnerable populations because of their lack of agency (let alone rights). […] The odd thing about forced exposure is that it creates a scenario where everyone is a potential celebrity, forced into approaching every public interaction with the imagined costs of all future interpretations of that ephemeral situation.”

With danah boyd‘s concern, I completely sympathize. Usually we recommend to “stay safe from the dangers of the Internet” to children or teenagers . But what does that mean? Should they abstain from connecting to others on Facebook? And how should a teenager ask for her peer or friend not to post a picture on which she would be visible? (The option to let their parents solve problems with unwanted pictures for them is not realistic – apart maybe from gross denigrations and mobbing).

There is no real choice. Either we will be regarded whimsical, even Luddite, or we will leave a broad track of data in the world. As time goes by, our behavior maps ourselves into an image, a projection into the data realm. This image of ourselves lies more or less in the open. And many clandestine and creepy companions lurk arround watching our lives in the mirror of our data; Google, Facebook, advertising targeting systems, shop recommandation engines, and finally the governmental surveillance services, couching behind the curtain, waiting for us to fail.

But indiscretion is not restricted to professional data krakens. Our profiles with personal information, our posts, our check-ins can be read by anyone who wants to. And indeed this is our very intention: of course I love people following me on Twitter, and I have met some of my closest friends in social networks. Social media work through authenticity – this buzzword has been written and told so many times, that it leaves a flat taste. But it is true: if we are not open, tell in fact about ourselves, we will hardly get in contact with others. It is part of the culture of social media (as in social life in general), to disclose details about ourselves, even if they could be used against us. Like me, posting my drinking habits quite regularly; and of course I want people who know me, or who have an interest in me, to read this. But what would it feel like, if someone would set-up a “Joerg-drinks”-bot, publishing statistics about my wine-tweets? Without context this would certainly draw a rather unfavorable picture of me.

From personal experience I would judge the damage from mortifications by “manual” data access much more severe, than the professional analyses of data krakens for their commercial use. And while with the latter, privacy and self-determination rights can be defined and often also enforced legally (e.g. via law against unfair-competition), assaults on personal data by individuals can hardly be contained with legal means. Where does stalking start, what exactly is an insult, what malicious gossip? The worst is, that the victim has to act in defense – “Streisand-effect”, fleer and mockery is poured on people, who “just don’t understand the rules”, are “stupid enough” to try to resist.

“Just because people can profile, stereotype, and label people doesn’t mean that they should.” (danah boyd in her essay)

If you ask yourself where to set the limits what to do with data, the answer is not really hard:
data courtesy

Courtesy is a cultural technique to maintain distance. We are courteous to organize our distance to others, not to offend them. We become courteous by keeping within our boundaries, which are not defined by laws or other written rules, but by our understanding, respect, and sympathy with others. Courtesy is the esprit de conduite, the good spirit of conduct. What was defined as religious command, or feudal duty in ancient or medival times, was unfolded as philosophy during the enlightenment. While still an act of dominance and power of the strengthening kind against the weakening noblemen at the court of Louis XIV, esprit becomes a bourgeois habit after the French revolution. And Kant’s maximes for human dignity were made into explicit recommendations for everyday’s life by Adolph von Knigge in his guidebook “Über den Umgang mit Menschen”.

Even before the invention of the web, the community of the first users on the net had formulated the Netiquette . “When someone makes a mistake – whether it’s a spelling error or a spelling flame, a stupid question or an unnecessarily long answer – be kind about it.” – Kindness – integral part of courtesy – was a topic back then.

“Gar zu leicht missbrauchen oder vernachlässigen uns die Menschen, sobald wir mit ihnen in einem vollkommen vertraulichen Tone verkehren. Um angenehm zu leben, muss man fast immer als ein Fremder unter den Leuten erscheinen.”
(“Far too easily people abuse or neglect us, as soon as we use a confidential tone in conversation. To live in a pleasant way, we almost all the time have to appear as stranger among other people.”)
Adolph von Knigge

So the culture of courtesy of the 19th century might be well suited for our age of post-privacy. Courtesy is a cultural thing. Cultivated means taken care of. It is time to act carefully with our data, which are so closely tied to us. It is time for data courtesy.

[this text was originally posted in German at slow-media.net]

Could we learn all about behavior change by simply applying some makeup?

At the Quantified Self Conference 2014 in Amsterdam, I attended a breakout session with the promising title “The Future Of Behavior Change”, moderated by Lukasz Piwek, a Research Fellow in Behavioral Change at the Bristol Business School.

Our curious and engaged crowd discussed that matter extensively and – unsurprisingly – left the session with more questions than answers. But: “it’s not about the answers, it’s about find more questions. Answers are so temporary”, as Ernesto Ramirez, the Quantified Self Lab’s Program Director elegantly tweeted. As a good researcher, Lukasz himself offered some possible answers but concluded that definitely more research is needed.

Based on his studies at Bristol Business School, he thinks that these factors lead to a lack of long-term user involvement while using Quantified Self tools, which is a major condition for behavior change:

– Lack of data validity and reliability
– Oversimplification of inferences

Regarding his first point, I take the risk of completely ignoring (his) research and putting my shirt on good judgement (which I usually avoid to do): I claim that people don’t bother at all, ignore any scientific shortcomings and look for comprehensibility and usability of Quantified Self tools: as long as variances of results; e.g. number of steps taken or burned calories stay small, users will accept them and stick to these tools. As often, critics as experts or journalists, point to flaws in technology, but individual users remain unaffected. We see this behavior in many seemingly sensitive topics, such as the privacy discussion. My guess would be: ask a hundred users if they are concerned about validity or reliability of collected data, and 95 would say “no”. We will do that via our explore app and I’ll hand the results in later.

Lukasz’ second finding is a bit more challenging. I must admit that I’d prefer to base my claim on reasonable data. And yet, I don’t believe in this finding either: most people I know – during the session Carine Coulm  introduced the term ‘normal people’; and I refer to exactly these people – prefer simplification over complex relations. They want the world to be explained to them, to be constructed, rather than some analytic and deconstruction work creating more problems than results. Most people want simple solutions. Therefore, I suspect that users of quantified self tools have to experience simple (positive) results in order to stay motivated.

At the 2014 M-Days conference, Frank Kressmann of Braun GmbH, a Procter & Gamble subsidiary, presented the first interactive electric toothbrush. It communicates via Bluetooth with an app, shows how long a user has been brushing her teeth, and gives some recommendations on the optimal pressure on the toothbrush head. P&G had 8,000 users tested this toothbrush who really seemed enjoying their oral hygiene: they extended their average duration of brushing their teeth from 45 sec to 2 min and 16 sec, a 300% change. Obviously, there’s an enormous impact of making a toothbrush interactive – it results not just in a minor, but in a significant behavior change.

Which brings me to the title of this post: Could we learn all about behavior change by simply applying some makeup?: Imagine Whitney, dressing herself up for tonight’s party. Before Whitney will leave her house she puts on her make-up. She does that in front of her mirror. At some point, she decides that it’s enough and she’s satisfied with what she sees in the mirror. She is ready to go.

Here are the ingredients of that behavior:
– Goal: looking good for tonight’s party
– Means: the makeup
– Control and measuring module: the mirror
– Feedback loop: many small make-up actions and their results
– Benchmark: Whitney’s look before vs after makeup
– Result 1: looking good
– Result 2: compliments from her friends

With her first glance into the mirror, Whitney realizes that she wants to enhance her look. (Maybe she doesn’t but for my example I need her to do so.) By knowing the instrument for an action which will change her look for the better, using the instrument and experiencing immediate effects of her actions, Whitney learns that specific actions lead to required results.

Couldn’t we therefore simply add mirrors to people’s daily behavior in order to motivate them to change their behavior? It doesn’t have to be real mirrors; it could be a tool mimicking the function of a mirror, such as an app which asks her user things about her actual behavior. Or an app like the one connected with the toothbrush – which mirrors the cleaning of its user’s teeth. The user would then be reminded of her actual behavior and “see it” like she would see it in a mirror. Do you yourself use a mirror on a regular basis? Which kind of mirrors (in a metaphorical sense) could you imagine?

I’ll elaborate on behavior change in forthcoming posts. But for moment, I encourage you to put on some makeup (as our CEO Joerg in this post’s feature visual, by courtesy of Kira, photographed by Yuki) in front of your mirror and share the results with us!

Another citizen science project: Monitoring ecological change with smartphones

Image above: Nerds for Nature setting up #morganfire01. Licenced under CC-BY-SA 2.0

Mobile citizen science – people jointly contributing to research with their smartphones – has been a frequent topic on this blog (e.g. here, http://datarella.com/helping-people-to-understand-real-time-pollution-risks/, or http://datarella.com/mapping-particulate-dust-with-phones/). What makes it so compelling, is that on the one hand the crowd of participants can generate much more measurements than would be possible with just one team of researchers, on the other hand, it is way less expensive.

In the case of Nerds for Nature, the research set-up is truely minimalistic. The task, Nerds-for-Nature set, is to monitor the recovering flora and fauna at Mount Diablo State Park after a major wild fire, over the course of months and years. To do this, they installed a makeshift camera-stand at different locations, overlooking the desater area. They placed a sing next to the stand, with very simple instructions:
“Place the camera phone in the bracket.”
“Take a photo of the view without filter.”
“Post your picture using #diablofire01 to Twitter, Flickr and Instagram.”

The project went viral, when Sergej Kropenin who works for Twitter, endorsed the project with posting an image and the text “Cool use of twitter“. This has been retweeted more than 8.000 times now, which proves in an impressive way, how excited people are about these kind of projects!

Here is the link to Nerds for Nature:

Tracking Scents and Long-Term Memories

Image above: Our olfactory sense and our long-term memories are tied together. To track places lost, I have collected boxes; the smell inside triggers my memory.

Cats are more attached to places than to their masters, so people say. Although I doubt that this is really true literally, felines are certainly attached to their territory. Cats, dogs, as most mammals, recognize their place by its scent – which they also enrich with their own pheromones.

When we humans smell something, that reminds us of some place we have been to, the memoric sensation that is evoked, feels often like the place in its whole, including everything that took place there. Such a gestalt can have overwhelming power, sucking us into the past. (Now I must not miss to quote Proust here, because it seams you can’t write about memories triggered by aroma without reference to ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’, so here you are.)

Scents cannot be digitized. Because we never smell anything without adding all our long-term memories to the sensation, it is impossible to find a common language that transports how we experience the scent. Other than visual impressions, haptics, temperature, which can be shared verbally with others, our olfactory sensing is highly personal. While I am writing this, I am sitting on the windowsill of my study; the warm air carries the smell of lilacs to me. But although I can presume why people are fond of this flavor, I do not have much associations with it; I can rationalize the connection of spring blossoms with warm and pleasant weather, however lilacs are obviously not connotated in an emotional way for me.

Nostalgic souvenirs

When my grandmother died, and we cleared her house, realizing it would be the last time to smell the place was also when I bacame aware I would never come back, at all. So I kept a box with stationary as a scent capsule. Yet also this smell will fade away, and with it the access to those long-term memories.

Nostalgia is directly tied into our olfactory memory that way. Our limbic system stores complex emotional landscapes together with the smell we experienced there. These memory-compexes are processed pre-consciously (it is a very old part of our brain that we share with all vertebrae since the carbon age); and because the brain’s layers are not working independently, our consciousness is immediately involved, primed with emotions, and adds the rational context to the emotional scenery.

I am generally not prone to nostalgia. Nevertheless I love to evoke those complex memory-scenieries arbitrarily. I have therefore collected a couple of specimen – far from sufficent to cover my life so far – but anyway. Does anybody else do this? Has anyone heard of doing this systematically? I would love to hear about this!

Semiologic approach

Although scents are highly personal, it is interesting to see how specific olfactory sensations are correlated with words. When I was working for Hubert Burda Media, a major print publisher, we we drew a subsample of some 1,500 parfume userers from our 20,000 participants in our large market survey TdW. With partners from the cosmetics industry, we asked the participants to rate more or less arbitrary words we put together on a list (quite similar to Semiometrie). Since we knew the fragrance the participants would usually wear, this allowed for building a dictionary of words related to parfumes prefered. We cross checked: the main olfactory characteristic of the parfume (“fruity”, “clove”, “lavender”, “musty”, … the perfume people have operationalized a typology that way) was correlated to the words ranked positive; and vice versa, ranking a word positive was a good predictor for scent preference of our control group. So it seamed to work. Unfortunately I left my team for a new job (online video – no relation to the cosmetics industry whatsoever), and the research was not carried on.

I still belief that starting with lexical correlates to complex emotional memories is a good way in making the scent sensation more comparable between subjects. At least those words can work as metaphors that we can build a shared image of.

Scent libraries

Smell-samples like my nostagic remnants of aroma carriers when collected systematically soon get very creepy. The East-German Staatssicherheit had amassed thousands of rags from the clothes of dissidents. This intrusive, totalitarian practice was in use in West-Germany, too, however not to such a horrifying extent.

Juan Mari and Elena Arzak with their library of aromas. (Courtesy of Restaurante Arzak)
Juan Mari and Elena Arzak with their library of aromas.
(Courtesy of Restaurante Arzak)

A much more pleasant form of scent collection can be found at the restaurant of Juan Mari and Elena Arzak. Situated at the Biscay at San Sebastion, Arzak’s is regarded as one of the best restaurants in the world. Pioneering in molecular cuisine (they call it even cuisine d’investigation), the Arzaks deployed a method, commonly used by perfumers: a library of fragrances to be composed to the aroma like colors on a painter’s palette. Perfumers and master chefs alike manage to synthesize scents arbitarily from basic odors.

Smell tracking

Our olfactory system is thus integral part of our synaesthetic memories. If we could track smells like we can record images with our mobile phone, it would certainly complete our lifelogging efforts. Most fragrances decay quickly when exposed to oxygen. So it does not make much sense to physically store our records. The task would rather be at first to analyse the chemical composition of the smells that surround us, and second to provide means to synthezise the recorded smell-memories anytime later, similar to what perfumers or chefs do by means of their artistry.

An interesting approach was presented by Jenny Tillotson at the Quantified Self Conference in Amsterdam. Dr. Tillotson is designing sensory fashion, that despenses very small doses of parfume according to our body functions. If the device detects stress or anciety, it would provide the person wearing it with a scent, specially designed to sooth the condition. The scent’s composition is customized according to the person’s personal needs. The singular aromas (like lavender, rosemary, citrus, etc.) are suspended on a special chip, a so called lab-on-a-chip, that acts as a miniaturized dispenser.

I think this might be a good path to follow. Of course the task to compose personal parfumes from a set of five or so aromas according to preset parameters is much simpler (complex enough, anyway!) than I full scale analyzer-syntheziser for scent tracking would have to be. So there is a lot to do!

Further reading:

Ethics for the Quantified Self

The diagram above shows the development of the frontooccipital circumference of a child’s head. We measure the growth of our children to track their healthy development. Only with the context of benchmarks does the data become meaningful. Without sharing, it is useless.

“Why Quantified Self Is The Next Big Thing” tells Michael Reuter in the last post on this blog. And I agree: The economic drive but even more the social incentives we earn from QS will lead its evolvement to ubiquity.

With this in mind, we should take a step back, and pause for a moment to think through some of the consequences a quantified society will bear on our lives, and on alternative routes this development might take along its path.

This post touches topics I took from a conversation on Twitter I had with Whitney Erin Boesel and Anne Wright (see here).

Quantified Self or Quantified Other?

“Quantified Toilet” was a nice piece of design fiction: big data collection from analyzing feces in a public toilet. It would not have been a good hoax if there wasn’t a short link to reality. In public space as well as in privatly owned para-public spaces like shopping malls, we are constantly quantized and monitored via a multitude of sensors. Traffic patterns, footfall, cellphone usage, noise level, but also telling environmental variables like micro-temperature and air moisture. Our phones also permanently track data not only about ourselves but also about other phones within reach. So we should be used to getting tracked. And there is hardly much difference between the CCTV surveillance we experience all the time and that we seem to mostly have accepted on the one side, and lifelogging, i.e. carrying a camera with us that takes pictures all the time, on the other. Nevertheless: there is very good reason to criticize the one and the other; both may be a gross violation of our right for informational self-determination.

However, we might think tracking only our personal data for our own purposes is different from tracking others. So lets think about social media: Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, they are not called “social” without cause. These platforms only work for us, if we connect to others, and communicate. Our timeline is not a monologue – we are interacting with others. If you try to opt-out, all these connections you built while you were using the platform would stay, no matter if your profile would be deleted. And even further, your position in the social graph of others will take some effect, even if you had never signed in for an account; reconstructing a missing object from data collected arround the object. If we connect to a team of trackers with devices that support social sharing of data, our contribution might thus tell about others without their being aware. If we share our sleep-tracking with the Jawbone Up, our social graph will certainly make possible some predictions on the behavior of our peers that we added to our team. And if we send the cotton bud with the smear of bacterial fauna habitating on and in our body to µBiome for analysis, there will be characteristical biological traces of other people that we interacted with – shaking hands, kissing …

“Surveillance Marketing”

There are two narratives, why the QS data is valuable. The first is health applications. I am convinced, that Michael is right. I have even written that the data shared and collectively used for the public good might save the planet. The second story is about marketing. I make a living from predicting behavior from data. It is called social research, market research, advertising planning, targeting. It is my profession. It is not evil to bring goods to the market. It is not evil that facebook sells targeted ads. Nevertheless people might start to wonder if the deal is fair that they get offered from the platforms: “Data is made of people!”

Many of the gadgets and platforms in QS are funded by VCs. Of course most of them will have to get sold, otherwise the investors would not see their money back. Not even crowdfunding might save a start-up from that fate as we have seen very prominently demonstrated with Oculus.

So I think we can expect people demanding back control or even money. We should support an open source and open data QS culture, and build business model arround that. These businesses will be ethically correct and prove more robust. (The term “Surveillance Marketing” was coined by Bruce Sterling at Wired Nextfest in Milan right in our context).

Algorithm Ethics

At last year’s QS conference, Gary Wolf told of his experiment in taking the different gadgets to track walking and running and compare the results. As expected, there were huge differences. A similar observation with commercial gene-sequencing services lead to an investigation of the FDA. We can’t build technology without bringing value-judgments into it. I have written and talked about that extensively. It is important not only to know this fact. We should always ask: could this technology be done in a different way? And we should demand for laying open the algorithms. There should not be a black box when our most intimate data is concerned. In IT security, open cryptographic algorithms are the only protocols that can be trusted; this is widely accepted. Open QS algorithms should be thought of the same way.

Liberal Fallacy or Empowerment?

My fourth point is about self-determination and resoponsibility. QS is a great way to support people’s health. We have heard fantastic stories, how tracking your body, your mind, your mood can help people getting back autonomy to lead a self-determined, active life. We should not corrupt the great contribution QS can add by turning it against people.

What if someone cannot change her life even if she tried? The most common form of this argument, I tend to call the liberal fallacy goes like this: “Obese people should own scales, track their weight, food intake, and training, and then they will overcome their condition. If they don’t succeed, they are just lazy.” I have heard obese-blaming frequently; and although other forms of abelism are less accepted, it is still common to presume responsibility for failure with the one who failed.

Today, parents have to defend themselves for denying prenatal diagnostics. I have heard people blaming parents for giving birth to a child with a Down Syndrom. We must not allow people to force a decision like taking an abortion to others just because they would value humans’ lives only according to the fitness and health.

We should take care to help people with QS without patronizing. We should not imply that everybody is master of their lives. We should not hand our responsibility to care for others off to technology, leaving people alone with their problems, because we think that they can now achieve through technology in what they had been failing before. Our responsibility to respect others, to not discriminate against anybody, not segregate from anyone, and accept others’ personalities and weaknesses, this will not change with QS; it might rather become more difficult.

There is no “virtual reality” we could just unplug from. Our being embedded in data is the only reality there is. There will be no opt-out. So we should help people to understand their quantified lives. We should lead the discussion which ethics we want to govern our lives.

If we act responsibly with our technology and our practices, if we stay alert to the intentions behind it, if we keep the discussion open, fostering transparency, and if we sympathize with others rather then judging them, The Quantified Self will unfold to more than just “the next big thing”.

[Note: I had written a draft of this post after the twitter conversation here; when I opened the draft today, all was gone, exept one number: “42”. … it is not about the answers, it is about the questions …]

Why Quantified Self Is The Next Big Thing

During the weekend of May 10-12, 250 students, scientists, artists, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs gathered at the Quantified Self Conference #qseu14 in Amsterdam, the fifth conference of its kind and the second one taking place in Europe. First timers, not being familiar with the concept of QS, got used to it pretty quickly and absorbed the essential aspects easily, as some of them told me during the breaks.

For me, it was a great experience and I learned even more than during #qseu13: the program was even more dense with most session descriptions reading so promising that selecting the “best ones” became quite tough. A nice location (the Casa 400) and a oerfect organisation (you won’t find a that kind of catering at other conferences) by Marcia and her team made the #qseu14 a real treat.

The Next Big Thing
And yet, this great experience is not the reason for this post. I think that the Quantified Self marks the beginning of the biggest societal shift since the Industrial Revolution. Or, to tone it a little bit down and to limit the claim to the more mundane area of economics: QS is the Next Big Thing. QS is the redistribution of power from experts and organizations to the individual. QS gives autonomy to the individual who, assessing herself through tracking tools and therefore knowing herself quantitavely and – based on data analysis – qualitatively, becomes independent from the opinion leadership of experts like medical doctors regarding the aspects of her health.

Redistribtion Of Power
In this sense, QS stands in a line with technologies and tools enabling billions of individuals of doing things formerly reserved to organizations: the internet itself, providing people with access to information, social media, enabling people to publish their own ideas, or 3D printers, enabling individuals to manufacture real products in their homes: all those redistribute power to the individual.

An Inbound Perspective
What is so special about the Quantified Self? Compared with the above mentioned technologies, QS isn’t about external tools to be used in order to do something you couldn’t before. It’s rather the inbound aspect of QS: by tracking themselves people start knowing themselves for the first time in history. It’s not about learning a new technique, it’s about learning about yourself. You use tools like wearable devices, smart clothes and apps to know yourself better and to optimize your lifestyle subsequently.

The Self
Trying to understand themselves better has kept people busy for centuries. Descartes, Locke, Hume, Nietzsche, Sartre and others pondered on the self, this agent responsible for the thoughts and actions of an individual. And still, the more complex the world has become, the less known the self seemed to be to their “owners”.

For instance, most aspects of health, being private affairs in earlier times, have been delegated to specialists in this field, medical doctors, psychologists and scientists. Even lifestyle health aspects as losing weight have been occupied by nutritional experts – may it even be the ubiquitous yellow press diet recommendation.

Health Care
And although we’re living longer than ever – the global life expectancy has improved to 68 years for men and 73 years for women – many health problems seem to be unsolvable. Obesity alone costs the U.S. health system more than $150 billion per year. So-called diseases of civilization have occurred or risen within the last decades, such as diabetes, cardiac diseases, specific types of cancer. And the proposed solutions of the health industry and its proponents is to cure the symptoms of these sicknesses, to produce more effective drugs and to develop the best therapies for so-called chronic diseases. As a diabetes patient, you get the diabetes treatment. No matter, if you are a 45-year-old mother, a 22-year-old obese student or a 72-year-old sporty pensioner, you get more or less the same diabetes treatment.

The Quantified Self In Health
What if it were possible to get the treatment which exactly matches your individual personal physique? What if the treatment took your complete lifestyle into account and would be adapted to your daily behavior? Or – even better: what, if a treatment would start with the prevention of diabetes by providing you with helpful advice regarding necessary behavior change based on the analysis on your realtime body data? Any health system in developed countries is based on fighting the symptoms of diseases, and on nurturing healthcare industries which need to retain their patients by providing them with drugs keeping them loyal customers. As long as the individual depends on the healthcare industry alone, he won’t get cured of diseases of civilization. There is an opportunity to leave this system, and this is the Quantified Self. As soon as the individual is provided with unbiased realtime data about his body, he can realize impending health risks and act accordingly by changing his behavior to prevent a disease. Or, he gets qualified recommendations regarding his lifestyle in order to reduce the negative effects of his chronic disease, or to even recover completely.

For sure, not everybody wants to know everything about himself, perhaps because he feels that the data would show that he’s in a very bad condition. Or, some people might just be quite insensitive towards their own health as some behaviors, such as smoking, seem to imply. And, as always, people will have to get used to track and analyze their body data consistently, as well as to learn to change their behavior based on recommendations. This latter aspect – how to motivate people to change their behavior – will be discussed in one of the next posts.

A Movement
The Quantified Self is not a technology, and it neither is an industry. It’s rather a movement, a lifestyle enabled by technologies such as apps, wearable device’s sensors and algorithms which translate body data into meaningful stories about human behavior. The Quantified Self is not powered by inventions, it isn’t owned by companies and it isn’t ‘protected’ from innovation by patents. The Quantified Self is powerd by the people, by individuals who realize that they have the ability to know and to make sense from all their data. By quantifying herself, the individual is the one who knows herself, who can change herself and therefore who can change the world. As soon as the individual becomes aware of her newly gained power, her re-gained autonomy, she will use it. And with her, billions of people.

In this post, I have pointed out the impacts of the Quantified Self on health care. There are other areas of life where we will see similar disruptive effects, e.g. education. Knowing your data makes the difference. And that’s why I think that the Quantified Self is the Next Big Thing.

What are your thoughts? Would love to read them!

Some Twitter stats for #qseu14

The Quantified Self Europe Conference 2014 had shown some activity on Twitter, as expected. 156 different people twittered using the #qseu14 tag. Nevertheless the absolute number of #qseu14-tweets slightly declined to ~1100 in 2014 from ~1700 in 2013.

The Twitter-activity, again hardly surprising, was higher on Saturday:

Distribution of twitter activity before and during the #qseu14 conference; blue=reply.
Distribution of twitter activity before and during the #qseu14 conference; blue=reply.

A nice hint on the socializing quality of the event gives the proportion of tweets sent as replies, which was higher on Sunday; maybe thus showing the more personal conversations. The connections between the conference are shown in this network graph:

Network diagram of Tweet-Reply relationships. Method: Force Atlas; weights for edges are the counts of tweets from one person to the other
Network diagram of Tweet-Reply relationships. Method: Force Atlas; weights for edges are the counts of tweets from one person to the other

Two twitterers are clearly standing out: Number one again is Whitney Erin Boesel (@weboesel) with 196 tweets, almost reaching her last year’s count of 221 (then twittering under the nick of @phenatypical); number two is me (@jbenno) with 133 tweets, which means I have more than doubled, even if I had been the second highest scoring participant then, too.

Twitterer leaderboard for the #qs14 conference: Nr. 1 is Whitney Erin Boesel closely followed by myself. The colors refelct to the percentage of people that had been included in the Tweet as an reply.
Twitter leaderboard for the #qs14 conference: Nr. 1 is Whitney Erin Boesel closely followed by myself. The colors reflect the percentage of people that had been included in the tweet as an reply.

Here’s an easy overview of the most common words with stopwords removed:

Words in the Tweets tagged #qseu14
Words in the Tweets tagged #qseu14

And these are the idioms: the most common trigrams (=three consequtive words):

Trigrams from #qseu14 tweets.
Trigrams from #qseu14 tweets.

I will post thoughts and impressions that I took home from #qseu14 soon, too.

Datarella People: Max Gotzler, Basketballer & Entrepreneur

Here is the transcript of the Datarella (DR) interview with Maximilian ‘Max’ Gotzler at the Quantified Self Conference 2014 in Amsterdam.


At the Quantified Self Conference 2014 in Amsterdam, we’re together with Maximilian Gotzler, semi-professional basketballer and Berlin-based entrepreneur. Max, could you introduce yourself and tell us why you are here at the Quantified Self conference?

First, I’m personally interested in Quantified Self: I want to know what’s new and how everything is evolving. Then, I held a presentation about a self-experiment about testosterone. And last but not least, I have presented my own startup biotrackr in an office hour.

A self-experiment on testosterone – that sounds pretty interesting. Can you tell us more about that?

It all started last year during some sort of a winter depression, when my blood test a relatively low level of testosterone. Since then I’ve tried to enhance this level by changing my nutrition and some aspects of my lifestyle, and I’ve presented the results here at the conference yesterday.

What are the results?

The results show that nutrition, sleep and stress have a big impact on the hormone balance, and especially on the testosterone level. Those three factors massively add to your well-being.

You profit from your experience as a semi-professional basketballer, playing in Germany and the United States in building your startup biotrackr. Can you tell us about that?

Sure. Biotracker provides a simple, easy-to-use process to measure your blood values at home. The user gets a test kit, takes her blood probe and sends it back to a laboratory. They get their results vizsuLized on our online platform.

The idea originates in competitive sports: as you said, I have been playing basketball, and the idea was to optimize performance by measuring several body-related parameters. And now I try to provide everybody with this competive sports concept to optimze health levels.

Your test focuses on measuring a user’s Vitamine D level. What are the effects of the Vitamine D level on the body?

Vitamine D holds many roles within the human body. It isn’t really a vitamine, but it’s a so-called secosteroid which evolves into a hormone. It has a big impact on the immune system, muscle growth, bone strength – and on your mood. In Germany and in other rather cold countries, most people have a Vitamine D deficiency – especially during the winter. And we want to make people aware of that. Since by measuring, you can spir people to change their behavior.

Does that mean we all should sunbathe? I mean, that would speak against conventional wisdom.

You should leave plain sunshine after 10-15 minutes or to put on some lotion. But I redommend to sunbathe the very first minutes without any lotion because then, the formerly inactive Vitamine D will be activated by the UVB rays and then can take full effect.

Here at the Quantified Self conference all discussions are about self-tracking and knowing yourself better by measuring your body data. Which data do you track yourself?

I’m very interested in sleep tracking: every night, I try to measure how long I sleep, how long it took me to fall asleep and how man phases of deep sleep I had. I want to optimize that. Additionally, I track my weight, body fat percentage, and my movements. And whereas I track sleep actively, I track all those other data passively.

Ok, that means that you don’t invest much of your time in tracking. Which is your favorite tracking app?

I really like Runkeeper which also shows your actuall running paths. Then I like an a called Mappiness, a mood app which asks you about your mood twice a day. And last but not least I really like the Jawbone UP app.

Max, thank you very much!

Very welcome!

Datarella People: Dan Berglund, Senior Developer at Narrative

Here’s the transcript of the Datarella (DR) interview with Dan Berglund of Stockholm-based life-logging startup Narrative.

At the Quantified Self Conference 2014 in Amsterdam, we’re together with Dan Berglund from Swedish startup Narrative. Dan, could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about Narrative?

Sure. I work as a Software Engineer at Narrative, a software and hardware company which makes a very tiny mobile camera that takes photos of everything you see. Photos are taken every 30 seconds, then they’re aggregated and we show you a meaningful representation of your data life.

You’re wearing a narrative camera. Could you show it to us and explain what this camera does in comparison with a typical camera?

Yes. Here it is. It’s working automatically – so you wear it at your shirt or jacket, and it takes photos every 30 seconds. If you want to turn it off, you just put it into your pocket. Then we offer a service, which is connected with the camera: it aggregates all photos and tries to find the best ones by grouping together similar photos. So at the end, you have a diary of your life.

What is the typical use case for the narrative? To automatically shoot photos during parties?

Sure – that would be one use case: special occasions like parties or when people are travelling. In general, people are interested to have photos made of their whole lives. Especially here at the Quantified Self – that’s the purpose of this crowd.

Dan, you are the most senior developer at Narative – ars you also a co-founder?

No, I’m not a co-founder, but I have been with the company almost from the beginning and I’m a senior developer at Narrative.

Can you tell us a bit about the challenges you have been cobfronted with during the early development phase of Narrative?

Yeah. Most developers of our team of 30 have a software background. And it was quite hard to understand how hard it is to develop hardware: you have long release cycles with long delays. And when you have to redisign something you have an additional delay of weeks or months. And this happend quite a few time during development.That, for sure, was the hardest part.

Yesterday, your colleague Eric told me that you manufacture in Taiwan. How hard was it to set up this manufacturing process for a startup working out of Stockholm, Sweden?

We actually got some help from another startup called MuteWatch which uses the same suppliers and plants. Without them it would have been much harder, and still, it’s quite hard to put all relevant things together and build a streamlined production process.

Apart from wearing your own Narrative camera, do you use other life-logging or self-tracking wearables?

I have tried out some passive tracking apps like Moves to track my movements – and similar ones- but I wouldn’t call myself a big life-logger or quantified self person. I’m more the kind of a ‘special events user’.

Thank you very much, Dan!


[Here you can see Datarella CEO @jbenno life-logging with the narrative]