Big data gives new meaning to 'know thyself'
Software developer and self-tracker Ed Hunsinger is conducting a personal big data experiment.
Big data and biometrics are giving a whole new meaning to the ancient Greek maxim "know thyself" as one IT executive seeks to gather and interpret every bit of data produced by his body and his life.
For the past two years Ed Hunsinger, a senior software developer at security software maker Splunk, has been using the company's program to analyse data about himself and his life.
Hunsinger is a self-tracker, part of the rapidly growing "Quantified Self" movement, founded by Wired magazine editors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly. The movement seeks to drive greater self-awareness by tracking data, usually from fitness and well-being apps and devices such as heart-beat monitors, glucose meters and running sensors. The QS website lists more than 100 QS meet-up groups worldwide. There are groups in Sydney and Melbourne with more than 300 members in total.
Self-tracker: Ed Hunsinger.
A study released by the US Pew Internet Research Centre in June found 60 per cent of US adults said they tracked their weight, diet or exercise routine, while 33 per cent monitored health indicators or symptoms such as blood pressure, blood sugar, headaches or sleep patterns. Seven in 10 said they tracked at least one health indicator. The growth in popularity of wearable computer devices is expected to increase health tracking.
It is now possible to gather information on your daily life minute-by-minute – where you are, what you are doing, how fast your heart is beating, whether you are sitting up straight enough, what is on your calendar – and to feed this data into one of the new breed of analytics software applications designed to extract meaningful information from vast amounts of disparate sources, a trend known as big data.
Hunsinger uses a range of devices to monitor his body and produce data that he can feed into Splunk but says the self-monitoring industry is very immature: many devices are short-lived and getting data out of some can be challenging.
Growing sources of data are helping some people learn more about themselves.
Dealing with multiple devices has its challenges. Hunsinger told his Twitter followers this week: "Going for a run means checking my Basis & Fuelband are charged, my GPS watch has satellites, chest strap is on, & Moves is running on phone."
He started out with a Fitbit – a calorie and step counter bracelet and app – to track his steps. He now uses a Basis watch to monitor his heart rate, skin temperature, perspiration and the air temperature, among other devices.
"Companies like Fitbit give you lots of data and great dashboards to look at it with, but the data gets siloed into their servers and getting it out can be a real challenge," he said.
"There are a number of companies moving into the quantified-self space. Fitbit is probably the biggest. They were founded in 2007 and have got $100 million in funding from investors."
He has used another device, the Zeoband – now defunct – to measure his sleep quality based on brain activity. "It would tell you whether you are in light sleep, or deep sleep, how often you breathe," he said. "It looked incredibly dorky but I got some really interesting data out of it."
Another device, a Lumoback, enables him to monitor his posture. "The Lumoback goes around your lower back and tells you when you are slouching. It gives you a buzz to remind you."
Hunsinger has combined the data about his body with data about his surroundings and activities. He takes data on distance, fuel consumption and driving habits from his car; data on his tweeting frequency and who he retweets; how often he reads his emails and how many are in his inbox. He has even written a simple iPhone app so he can feed data into Splunk from activities that do not generate any electronic data, such as domestic chores he is accused of neglecting.
"I can just pull out my phone and push a button when I do the dishes, or clean the kitty litter," he said. "And I started sneezing a lot at work so I started tracking my sneezes."
To track his location he uses Foursquare, a location-based social networking site for mobile devices. Users check in at venues via the web, text messaging or a mobile application by selecting from a list of venues identified by the app.
Hunsinger said having all his data in one software application allowed him to relate data from quite different sources.
"I noticed a spike in my heart rate at 4pm on 1 June, and the data from Foursquare shows I checked in at the go-kart track at 3pm that day."
He's even put a Fitbit device on his cat, and can compare his walking activity with hers. "She gets between 1500 and 2000 steps per day … There was one day when she took more steps than I did," he said.
People wanting to emulated Hunsinger's experiments in self-monitoring can use the software at no charge. It is free for daily volumes of less than 0.5GB and runs on Windows, OSX and several versions of Linux.
The author travelled to the Splunk Users' Conference in Las Vegas as a guest of the company.