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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

March 2, 2013 at 8:00 PM

Analyze this: Quantified Self is not as geeky as you think

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Ten years ago, Jin Young Kim began to track his happiness.

He’s happier in the morning than at night, when he’s busy than when he’s idle, and at work than at home. The roughly 35 people gathered recently to listen took it all in as slides of charts, scales and word clouds described his method and findings.

Kim spends up to a half-hour a day analyzing his happiness on a scale he designed himself — no big deal to this crowd. Self-measurement is where the fun begins for followers of a growing movement called Quantified Self.

In Seattle, they meet for show and tell at the Belltown offices of Year Up Puget Sound. I joined last month and fit right in. Holding cups of juice or wine in one hand and smartphones in the other, we compared apps that helped us track everything from sleep and exercise to productivity. We rolled up our sleeves to show off the wearable gadgets that collected data as we spoke — FitBits, Nike FuelBands, the works. Ben Gilbert, another newbie, carried the BodyMedia tracker he had bought hours earlier, still trapped in its packaging. It uses a heat sensor to estimate calorie burn, which impressed the few of us who didn’t already know about it.

About half the attendees were first-timers, which surprised me. “I always say it’s like a support group,” a friend I didn’t expect to see there told me. I laughed, knowing what he meant.

Geekery loves company.

But there’s something so ungeeky about Quantified Self. Or at least, something destined for universality. Self-trackers surround themselves with fancy techie things, but really — don’t we all? And who doesn’t want to know more about how they sleep, exercise and meet goals so they can do it better?

Who doesn’t want to use technology, in other words, to get more control?

It’s getting easier. The Quantified Self website, run by early fans of the concept, reported finding 22 tools for self-tracking on a recent visit to the Apple Store and 25 on a visit to Best Buy, including the Striiv Smart Pedometer and the Withings Wireless Scale. “This feels very fast,” author Ernesto Ramirez wrote.

RSVPs for the Seattle Quantified Self meetups have quadrupled since David Reeves started the group more than two years ago. Reeves, who works at Limeade, a Seattle workplace well-being company, says QS — as it’s sometimes known — is thought to be just for nerds. But it’s not as difficult as some people think, nor as prescriptive. I hear that. If there’s an ideology to it at all, it’s that self-knowledge is critical to self-improvement. What to track, how to track it and what to do with the information you gather are up to you.

It’s self-help in the true sense. Quantified Selfers don’t read someone else’s book or follow someone else’s path. They do the work of learning what helps them individually, apply the lessons and share the results. These are show and tells, not lectures. If there’s a prescription, Quantified Self seems to say, it’s more fun, and probably more effective, if you find it yourself.

Forget geeky. That’s just smart.

Jae Osenbach, a psychometrician, gave another of last month’s show-and-tell presentations — about nuts. She had heard that including tree nuts in your diet sped up weight loss. So she tested it, replacing some of the 1,350 calories in her diet with pistachios. After a couple months, her data proved it: The tree nuts made a statistically significant difference in how fast she shed pounds every week.

Osenbach used just an Excel spreadsheet to get it done. Kim, who presented after her, stitched together more advanced programs to track his happiness. He compared the challenge of understanding and improving something that subjective to his day job at Microsoft Bing — understanding and improving the quality of online search results.

Technology is a common tool for Quantified Selfers, but it’s not required. Amelia Greenhall, who helped run the group until she moved to the Bay Area, once showed off her “star chart,” a simple but thoughtful poster of activities she tracked daily. One of her custom self-tracking apps is “so cool,” she told the crowd, pulling a wallet-sized pad from her pocket, “it’s on paper.”

Quantified Self looks new, but comes from something old. After we mingled over apps and gadgets, Reeves, the group’s founder, kicked off the presentations with a shout-out to one of its conceptual pioneers — self-tracker Benjamin Franklin.

Gilbert left the meetup with his BodyMedia free of its packaging and strapped to his upper arm. I left with ideas about how to track and improve my writing. Kim left more confident that all his work was bringing him closer to a workable model of his own state of mind.

Quantified Self challenges self-trackers to find meaning in numbers. But there’s already meaning in the pursuit.
We’ve always worked a little differently. Now it’s easier to find out how.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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