Evans’s daily productivity surveys soon inspired him to create a broader, more flexible mobile platform for self-experimentation that he dubbed PACO—an acronym for Personal Analytics Companion, but also a tribute to the dog that helped inspire his data-tracking ideas. Now PACO is used by thousands of Google employees, and not just for productivity. The app is fully customizable, which means it can track any data point a user dreams up. Some Googlers employ it to log exercise or participation in volunteer programs. Evans tailored his version of PACO to monitor his work tasks and exercise and as a reminder to eat fewer sweets. A colleague uses it to track carbohydrate intake and weight fluctuations and to compare trends across PACO experiments. “I look at the information I track every couple of months and remind myself of the progress I’ve made, or where I need to change my behavior,” Evans says.
After hearing him describe all the ways PACO has subtly changed the lives of his colleagues, I was ready for my own plunge into the world of self-tracking.
Logging personal data is probably as old as writing itself, but some modern self-trackers trace its origin to that godfather of American ingenuity, Benjamin Franklin. He was interested in how well he adhered to his famous 13 virtues, including frugality, sincerity, and moderation. Each day for several years he noted the ones he’d violated in a book he kept especially for the purpose.
More recently, Gordon Bell, a computer pioneer and researcher at Microsoft, introduced the concept of “life logging.” From 1998 to 2007, Bell collected his emails and scanned documents, photographs, and even continuous audio and video recordings of his day-to-day life into a searchable online database—an attempt to create a digital record of every thought and experience he’d had for a decade.
Within the past three years, though, self-tracking has grown into a veritable grassroots movement, embodied by an organization called Quantified Self, a community of data-driven types founded in the San Francisco Bay Area by journalists Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf. Most Quantified Selfers have technology backgrounds, or at the very least a penchant for numbers. They gather in online forums and at face-to-face events to talk about their self-experimental methods, analyses, and conclusions. How does coffee correlate with productivity? What physical activity leads to the best sleep? How does food affect bowel movements? Mood? Headaches? No detail, it seems, is too intimate or banal to share.
The current explosion in
self-tracking would not be possible without the mass digitization of personal data. Websites for tracking, graphing, and sharing data about health, exercise, and diet—many of which are linked to phone apps—are on the rise. RunKeeper, a popular data collection app for runners, reports 6 million users, up from 2 million in November 2010. The new small, affordable sensors, like the $100 Fitbit, can wirelessly log all sorts of human metrics: brainwave patterns during sleep, heart rates during exercise, leg power exerted on bike rides, number of steps taken, places visited, sounds heard. And a number of these sensors, such as microphones, GPS locators, and accelerometers, come inside smartphones, making some types of tracking effortless. Research firm eMarketer projects that by the end of 2012, 84.4 million people will use smartphones in the United States, up from 40.4 million in 2009.
A 2011 study by Pew Internet, a project at the Pew Research Center that investigates the impact of the Internet on American society, estimates that 27 percent
of Internet users have kept track of their weight, diet, or exercise or monitored health indicators or symptoms online. Still, the Pew report also hints at a limitation inherent in the current self-tracking paradigm. It is still done mainly by conscientious people who are highly motivated to collect specific types of data about specific cases. Of the adults surveyed who own a cell phone, only 9 percent have mobile apps for tracking or managing their health.
“It’s still a relatively new idea that phones are windows into your behavior,” says computer scientist Alex Pentland, director of the Human Dynamics Laboratory at MIT. Most people, he adds, think that “health is the responsibility of your doctor, not you.” But self-tracking tools that give both patient and physician a snapshot of symptoms and lifestyle could become increasingly important to personal health.
Health is exactly what was on the mind of Alberto Savoia, a Google software engineer who supervises Evans, when he joined us in the conference room to discuss which PACO experiments had worked best for his team.
Savoia himself had created an experiment to track the effects of his allergy shots. He’d never had allergies until he moved to America from Italy. “I made fun of Americans,” he says, for sneezing at everything from cats to dust. “But lo and behold, I started to sniffle.” He suspected that his shots were helping, but as an engineer, Savoia knew to be skeptical of his own perceptions. He wanted quantitative proof. “Our brains construct fabulous stories,” he says. The daily reports he logged into PACO indicated that his shots for cat dander and pollen were working well: His symptoms were less severe and less frequent than they had been before the shots.
During the same test period, Evans created an experiment called Food Rules, based on the book of that name by Michael Pollan, a journalist who advocates eating simply and avoiding processed food. After each meal, PACO would ask: Did you eat real food? Was it mostly plants? Evans found that the very act of responding to these questions made him more aware of his eating habits. He started choosing his food in the Google cafeteria more carefully, knowing he would have to answer for it after lunch. Within weeks he stopped running the experiment because every answer was “yes.”