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Monday, January 5, 2009

Low Value Personal Information Sites Clogging Search Engines

As posted by: Wall Street Journal

In the first week of January, New York graphic designer Nicholas Felton will boil down everything he did in 2008 into charts, graphs, maps and lists.

The 2007 edition of his yearly retrospective notes that he received 13 postcards, lost six games of pool and read 4,736 book pages. He tracked every New York street he walked and sorted the 632 beers he consumed by country of origin.

Part experimentation, part self-help, such "personal informatics" projects, as they are known, are gathering steam thanks to people like Mr. Felton who find meaning in the mundane. At their disposal are a host of virtual tools to help them become their own forensic accountants, including Web sites such as Dopplr, which allows people to manage and share travel itineraries, and Mon.thly.Info, for tracking menstrual cycles. Parents can document infant feeding schedules with Trixie Tracker. And couples can go from between the sheets to spreadsheets with Bedpost, which helps users keep track of their amorous activities.

The objective for Mr. Felton and others is to seize data back from the statisticians and the scientists and incorporate it into our daily lives. Everyone creates data -- every smile, conversation and car ride is a potential datapoint. These quotidan aggregators believe that the compilation of our daily activities can reveal the secret patterns that govern the way we live. For students of personal informatics, the practice is liberating because it shows that our lives aren't random, and are more orderly than some might expect.

Mr. Felton calls his compilation the Feltron Annual Report; the slight alteration of his name connotes the mechanical nature of his autobiographical cataloging effort, now entering its fourth year. He plans to continue his project over the next decade in what he hopes will result in a modern-day spin on James Boswell's famously detailed biography of Samuel Johnson. "I want to create connections where I didn't know that they existed," Mr. Felton says. "I'm a natural annotator."

The elegantly graphical reports, as much design projects as they are data compilations, are posted online by Mr. Felton. He also creates hard-copy limited editions, available free of charge. They have become so popular that he recently launched a Web site with his friend Ryan Case called Daytum, which helps fellow chroniclers track the details of their own experiences.

The culture of sharing information online has shifted in recent years, from a focus on blog ramblings to the ubiquitous micro-movements of posters' daily lives. Microblogging sites like Twitter have become commonplace. President-elect Barack Obama, for example, had his own Twitter account and used it to keep his supporters up to date on his campaign's daily comings and goings. (It's been silent since the election.) Facebook's News Feed feature initially drew criticism from members because it offered a running log of users' minute postings and updates, but has since became a core part of the Web site's community. Some sites collect data automatically for their users. Last.fm keeps a record of all of the songs users have listened to, and Netflix keeps track of members' movie-watching habits.

"It's a natural progression from people sharing things like movies, photos and videos," says Dennis Crowley, founder of Dodgeball, an early social-networking service for mobile phones which was sold to Google in 2005. "What's left to share? Basic data."

Yannick Assogba, a graduate student at MIT's Media Lab, created a site called Mycrocosm to help users compile and share the "minutiae of daily life" in the form of multicolored bar charts and pie charts. Mr. Assogba, for example, tracks his ping-pong winning streaks and what days he spends the most money. Created in August, Mycrocosm now has 1,300 registered users. "We're living in an era of data," Mr. Assogba says.

Today's info-chroniclers are just the latest in a long history of diarists and scientists who kept notes by hand. Nineteenth-century English inventor and statistician Francis Galton, who introduced statistical concepts such as regression to the mean, was an obsessive counter who created the first weather map and carried a homemade object called a "registrator" to, among other things, measure people's yawns and fidgets during his talks. (Mr. Galton's preoccupation with data, specifically with human hereditary traits, also yielded an unsavory by-product -- eugenics.)

In 1937, a social research organization called Mass Observation in London used about 2,000 volunteers to develop an "anthropology of ourselves." For more than a decade, participants recorded such things as their neighbor's bathroom habits and what end of their cigarettes they tapped before lighting up. Personal tracking also showed up in "Cheaper by the Dozen," a 1948 book about efficiency experts Frank Bunker Gilbreth and Lillian Moller Gilbreth and their attempts to track and optimize the daily routines of their 12 children (including when they brushed their teeth and made their beds).

Several technological shifts in the last decade have helped turn personal informatics into a mainstream pursuit. The iPhone, for example, has several applications such as Loopt that use the product's internal global positioning system to record a user's location and then share it with others. Low-cost products such as Wattson, an energy monitor that tracks real-time power consumption, make it easy to record otherwise nebulous data.

To help women prepare for their period or try to get pregnant, Chicago Web designer Heather Rivers created Mon.thly.Info, a site that sends alerts and tracks users' menstrual cycles. Ms. Rivers says her interest was purely practical; it's the only data about herself that the University of Chicago student records. "I'm not interested in biorhythms for the sake of being interested. It's just helpful in terms of throwing tampons in your backpack. This is one of the details I'd rather not worry about," Ms. Rivers says. "It's not so I can go back and fondly reminisce about my past periods."

Some of the new data collectors hope to make better decisions about their activities and improve their quality of life. For the last four months, Alexandra Carmichael, the founder of a health research Web site called CureTogether in San Francisco, has been tracking more than 40 different categories of information about her health and personal habits. In addition to her daily caloric intake, her morning weight and the type and duration of exercise she performs, she also tracks her daily mood, noting descriptions such as "happiness" and "feeling fat."

From her initial readings, she concluded that her mood went up when she exercised and went down when she ate too much. "I realized my relationship with food is a distorted, unhealthy one," Ms Carmichael says. She has concluded that she may have an eating disorder and has decided to seek counseling.

Andy Stanford-Clark, an inventor for IBM, began tracking the power usage of his 16th-century thatched cottage on the Isle of Wight in an unusual way. Everything in his house, from his phone to his doorbell, is hooked up to automated sensors. Each time water is used, or a light goes on or off, it's catalogued publicly on Twitter for all to see, along with the total household water and electricity consumption. Mr. Stanford-Clark says he now tries harder to conserve power. "I just couldn't believe how much money that was wasting," he says.

Keeping track of personal data online can yield unexpected consequences. "Initially, it sounds like a great idea, such as the social aspects," says Christopher Soghoian, a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. But "for most users, the costs outweigh the benefits," he says. Specifically, Mr. Soghoian points to the legal concept called the "third-party doctrine" which eliminates the right to privacy for users who voluntarily place their information on Web sites. "If you're cataloging every movement, that might come up if you get divorced," he say.

Private investigators and the federal government could also use such information in some circumstances. In the application for jobs with Mr. Obama's administration, applicants are asked to list all of the social networks that they are involved in and to supply any potentially problematic blog posts from their online past. "All this stuff is creating a huge digital paper trail that could come back and haunt you," says Mr. Soghoian.

Personal data collection can get in the way of living, some people admit. "It becomes an obsession," says Toli Galanis, an aspiring filmmaker in New York who tracks everything from his mercury levels to his vitamin D consumption. He says that he's had to forgo outings with friends when he's trying a new diet that requires scheduled mealtimes, and elicits strange looks from his parents when he measures his dinner food to the ounce.

Still, he adds, "Life and its goals are like a lab. Why not use it like a scientist? Then you'll really know what you want to. There's so much info that it'd be a shame not to track it."