Quantified Self Europe

I spent the weekend in Amsterdam for the first Quantified Self Europe conference which follows on from an event in Silicon Valley earlier this year (written up by the FT here). I learned a lot and thought I’d pop some notes up so you can see what’s been going on.

First presentation of the weekend was Rain Ashford talking about wearable computing. She showed how McLaren are using sensors inside the suits of Formula One drivers to try to monitor the drivers as well as they monitor the cars. McLaren call this “human telemetry” and it wouldn’t surprise me if we see a few spinouts from them over the coming years. She also showed some electronic tattoos that included circuitry and another experiment by the Australian army that is developing flexible solar panels to be used in the field to power equipment. There’s work at Nottingham Trent University to put components into yarns in the first place and then she showed some lovely examples of knitted accelerometers. Pretty much the opposite aesthetic to some of the medical stuff you see around.

My favourite talks of the weekend were the show and tell sessions. I loved this heart rate monitor for swimming that is built into a pair of goggles. The idea is to give you simple feedback about whether you are in the optimal heart rate zone for training with a system of LEDs that just gently glow red (too fast), green (just right) or orange (go faster).

Christian Kleineidam gave a really impressive presentation showing what he’s learned about his own lung function by tracking it using a simple peak flow meter and how he’s managed to improve it by experimenting. This was a great example of pro-am medicine for me and showed the limitations of professional diagnosis that’s done in snapshots (or appointments as we tend to call them).

Kiel Gilleade talked about his experiment tracking heart rate data for a year at Liverpool John Moores University. A lot of what he found was how people reacted to the data because they could track it in real time on twitter. He also had some interesting lessons about the effects of alcohol on heart rate above a certain level whereby sleep would consistently be disrupted for two nights following a bout of heavy drinking (he reckoned over 4 pints).

The strangest looking presentation was of a cheap brainscanner — consisting of a device that has been developed for playing computer games and a clever app that turns the signals into images. I have no idea what you would use this for, but at $299 for the scanner, it’s a lot cheaper than having people sit in an MRI machine.

There was a lot of buzz around Nancy Dougherty’s project which took a completely different angle. She got interested in placebos — particularly the experiments which seemed to show them having a positive effect on some illnesses and wondered whether they could have an effect on mood too. She created pills that she would take to try when she felt certain ways — then she added a tiny transmitter to the pills that would be activated when they hit her stomach so she could track which ones had an effect. It was a great example of how actually some quantified self stuff can be completely counter-intuitive.

I loved the story of Asthmapolis. The Economist have a little bit of it here but it really showed the potential of the data collected by self trackers to public health authorities. At the moment I don’t get any sense that there’s anybody in the NHS for example looking at how macro data could be analysed to try and improve the system. The story was told by Steven Dean who runs the DIY health course at ITP which sounds like a lot of fun.

Gary Wolf was excellent throughout the weekend — mainly moderating sessions and asking tricky questions of the presenters. He’s not a straightforward cheerleader for QS and is keen to probe the limitations as well as the benefits. He points out that feedback (as described in cybernetics) often doesn’t work for health. If things don’t go well as you’re measuring, people tend to give up. There’s interesting thinking around second order cyberneticsÂ — but as yet nobody really has an answer to how you deal with peoples’ aversion to measuring things that aren’t going well.

Finally — this was a brilliantly organised event that others could learn a lot from. It was a great venue, the tickets were affordable, the food was excellent and designed to keep you alert including lots of healthy snacks. There was great wifi, lots of power sockets around and no grandstanding — people were pretty much just saying what they did, how they did it and what they learned. Kudos to the organisers.
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Outsourcing motivation

I’ve been watching the quantified self movement gather pace for the last year or so with increasing fascination. If you haven’t come across it before, it’s a group of people making the most of technology to measure elements of their life so they can better understand themselves and hopefully improve. There are a number of good talks about the subject, including this introduction by Gary Wolf of Wired Magazine in the form of a short TED talk, and a few good feature articles, the best of which is this one from the FT Magazine which covers the first big conference on the subject held in Silicon Valley in May this year.

There are a number of apps that I’ve had a play with, although I have to admit that I’ve struggled to keep up with all of them because some of them require quite a lot of data entry. The ones I’ve settled on are:

  • MyFitnessPal — noting down what I eat
  • NHS Drinks Tracker — noting down what alcohol I drink
  • iMapMyRun — measuring how much exercise I’m doing
  • TallyZoo — noting down a few other things I like to track such as how many coffees I’m drinking

So far at least, there’s no app that does all the things I want, so I put this data in a Google Spreadsheet that I try to keep up to date. It started out as a way of measuring my productivity including how many of my tasks on Things I managed to do each day, how many emails I sent and how many words I was writing each day, but I’ve expanded it over time to track the health related data.

There is something very geeky about all this. It suits people who love numbers and data and perhaps those hackers who are always looking for ways to do things that avoid hard work. You have to measure the right things which I guess is dependent on what matters to you — there’s little point in measuring things you don’t care about. But I do think it helps with motivation. In many ways it’s like outsourcing your motivation so you don’t need to worry about it yourself. Once you’ve understood your targets you have something that keeps you honest — be that a gadget or a website that gives you feedback from other people.

I’m fascinated by whether you could create much easier ways to help people analyse their nutrition and activity so that they could avoid health problems. I’m sure not everybody would want to but I think more people than we like to admit are a bit obsessive in hidden ways. The number of people on diets or with tiny things they have to do every day to remain happy is huge.

Personalised preventative medicine, if we can make it work, should be a lot cheaper than personalised medicine where treatment is needed. The savings for the NHS could be enormous. One idea I have is to give people an app that formats data in a way that is useful to them but also to GPs. The app itself is free and if you keep it up to date, you get free prescriptions. The idea would be that over time it would save GP surgeries money because patients wouldn’t be claiming prescriptions as often because they would be getting feedback on their nutrition and lifestyle that would improve their health. Taking on the extra cost of the prescription would be negligible for the GP surgery and the problem of older people not being able to use the technology wouldn’t matter because they currently get free prescriptions anyway.

I’ve decided I’ll head over to the European Quantified Self Conference in Amsterdam at the end of November to find out more. In the meantime I’ll keep collecting the data about my own health and productivity. Maybe by the time we come to the event I’ll have something to share.
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