Self Tracking: The Quantified Life is Worth Living

Gordon Bell. Image: would you do with a complete memory of your entire life? Would you relive your first kiss? Figure out what triggered your recent migraine? Remember the name that goes with the familiar face in front of you?

In other words, wouldn’t it be great to have a backup of your brain?

Gordon Bell is a walking experiment doing just this. Bell has been tracking his life in delicious detail for the past 11 years. It started at Microsoft Research, where Bell started the MyLifeBits project. His goal was to digitally record as much of his life as possible. He wore a camera, recorded his phone calls, scanned photos and letters, documented all of his computer work, and tracked his biometrics. The job of Bell’s colleague Jim Gemmell was to build software to make all this tracking easier, searchable, and meaningful.

This September Bell and Gemmell released a book called Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything. In it, they talk about the future implications of being able to remember everything about your life in extraordinary detail. Bell proposes that a “continuous digital diary or e-memory” that integrates digital recording devices, memory storage and search engines will fundamentally “change what it means to be human.” Their work includes research into memory, work, health, learning, and immortality. A side order of privacy is served up too, as the authors distinguish between “life loggers,” who keep their records to themselves, and “life bloggers,” who broadcast their data.

Of course, self-tracking is not a new idea. People have been recording their lives in analog format ever since they started drawing on cave walls. Benjamin Franklin used to keep a detailed checklist of the thirteen virtues he was striving to live by, including annotated explanations of where he was succeeding and where he still needed to improve.

Now, it can all be monitored digitally.

It probably won’t surprise the readers of this article that I track myself. But it might surprise you that I track 40 different things every day. On a typical day, my pain level is 2, my weight is 126 lbs, I did 1 hour of walking, my happiness is 9, and I slept 6 hours. Charts like the one below help me to be aware of my mood, activity level, and sleep, and how these things interrelate.

With a background in molecular genetics and bioinformatics, as well as a history of chronic pain, I started tracking to help myself. But I soon wanted to apply what I had learned to help others. Here are two of the projects I’m currently working on.


Imagine a show-and-tell for grownups. Fifty or so people get together every month in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City. They show each other the data they’ve collected, the tools they’ve built, the ideas they have, or the self-tracking projects they’re working on. Feedback and questions pop up from the audience. All of it is reminiscent of the Homebrew Computer Club.

This amazing group, which calls itself The Quantified Self, was started in 2007 by Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf of Wired Magazine. They noticed a trend in people seeking greater self-knowledge, and using numbers on this quest to understand themselves. (Hence the name.)


  1. Tweetwhatyoueat
    Alex Rossi showed a demo of the web application he built to help people keep track of the foods they eat. He even added a crowdsourced calorie lookup, so if you’re not sure how many calories were in the banana you just ate, you can see what eight other people estimate the calories of a banana to be. He used the Twitter API, with a simple prefix people can use in their tweets that will direct the information to his system. (See a video of his Quantified Self presentation in Resources.)
  2. Lifecasting
    Ryan Grant showed a wearable camera he was working on that would take tens of thousands of pictures every day. That’s a picture every 2 to 5 seconds. It’s like a memory assistant that puts scrapbooking to shame. Of course, categorizing and searching all those photos is the next challenge. (See Resources for Ryan’s talk.)
    Tim Lundeen's Arithmetic Data / Food Palette  
  3. Fish Oil Makes You Smarter
    Here is an example of pure self-experimentation. Tim lundeen gave himself a cognitive test of 100 simple math problems, every day for 130 days. On day 80, he started taking double his normal dose of DHA (from fish oil), and his time to complete the math problems decreased. See the chart to right.
  4. Your Genome on Twitter
    At a recent Quantified Self meetup, Attila Csordas talked about his attempt to post the data from his 23andMe genome scan to Twitter, with each SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism) expressed as a tweet. What happens when more people make their personal health information public? Does the health information have a life and friends of its own? Would you follow a SNP on Twitter? These are some of questions that arose out of this animated discussion.
  5. A Square Meal
    Mimi Chun, at a New York Quantified Self meetup, showed the beautiful quantitative artwork she created based on the color of her food palette over the course of a week (see right).

So whether it’s for art, memory, health, or data for data’s sake, people are tracking themselves and sharing their results. We do it because we love data or because we have specific things we want to optimize about ourselves. As Kevin Kelly wrote, “Unless something can be measured, it cannot be improved.” When Gordon Bell is asked what he has learned about himself through the MyLifeBits project, his reply is unexpectedly qualitative: “That’s been a really hard question to answer… I guess it’s the rich set of connections and people that I’ve been involved with.”

Bell’s comment reflects the challenges that come up over and over again at Quantified Self discussions — questions that tend to revolve around two topics: motivation and meaning. How do we stay motivated (and motivate others) to track ourselves, and how do we make sense and learn actionable lessons from all of this data? The search for solutions to these challenges offers ample opportunities for innovation. Imagine self-tracking games that reward people for recording their health with badges of recognition; passive monitoring devices that remove the need to actively track yourself; social pressure in the form of online group challenges; prizes awarded to algorithms that turn messy data into beautiful insight.


Image: curetogether.comOne step on this path of innovation is self-tracking applied to health. An example of this is CureTogether, a patient data-sharing site I co-founded with Daniel Reda where people come to self-report symptoms, treatments, and triggers for over 300 conditions.

People are tracking their depression, cholesterol, migraines, and countless other measures. Using migraine as an example, patients visiting CureTogether can see community statistics and learn that the top reported symptoms are “Nagging pain in one side of the head” and “nausea;” the top reported treatments are “sleep” and “ibuprofen;” the top reported triggers are “stress” and “not enough sleep” and the top related conditions are anxiety and depression.

Instead of narrative websites that provide emotional support in the form of shared disease stories, the quantitative data at CureTogether enables decision support and hypothesis generation. People are getting ideas for new treatments that they ask their doctors about. They are seeing how common or rare their symptoms are, and learning what triggers might be affecting them. While each individual’s data is completely private, the aggregate data is open for researchers around the world to analyze and use to make discoveries for the greater good. Some interesting correlations are already starting to emerge, like a potential link between migraine and fibromyalgia.


The Quantified Self and CureTogether are just the beginning. Here are some scenarios that point to a fundamental shift in healthcare coming in the near future.

  1. Self-Organized Clinical Trials
    Patients have started coming together to define their own case-control studies. At PatientsLikeMe, patients with ALS either took lithium or didn’t take lithium, and they tracked their progress. They didn’t find that lithium helped slow the disease progression, but they did run an ALS trial with the largest population in the fastest time and with the lowest cost ever.
  2. Streaming, Ubiquitous Biosensors
    Think constantly uploading data about your body to an online repository is far off in the future? Not so. For a one-time fee of $99, you can now have FitBit, the accelerometer with the beautiful clip-on form factor and wireless uploading of exercise and sleep data. It’s passive motion tracking in your pocket.
  3. Analytics for Your Health
    A number of emerging companies are trying to do for health what Google Analytics has done for website management and what Mint has done for finances. DailyBurn is one example doing this for fitness and nutrition, with a $0.99 iPhone app that lets you take pictures of the barcodes on foods you eat to help you more smoothly track your caloric intake. A big challenge here is the lack of interoperability and standards adoption. EMRs, PHRs, and self-reported data just don’t talk to each other very well yet, but medical informatics groups like the Regenstrief Institute are working on it.
  4. What Treatment Will Work For Me?
    The true promise of all this self-tracking is, in the end, personalized medicine. With enough data about your symptoms, biomarkers, environment, genes, response to previous treatments, and aggregate population data for comparison, it should be possible for a series of algorithms to determine which treatment is statistically most likely to work for you, with the greatest efficacy and least side effects. This is an exciting future to which I am dedicating all my waking effort. So now that you’ve heard Gordon Bell’s story, and mine, and the voices of Quantified Selfers across the country, the choice is yours: will you document your life?

Alexandra Carmichael is co-founder of CureTogether, blogger at The Quantified Self, advisor to Singularity University, and mentor to several startups. Find her on Twitter @accarmichael.

15 Responses

  1. vanesa says:

    It would be very interesting to have a backup of the brain but for you and your family only. If this were possible I would probably watch once in a while my time in Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center in Santa An to remember what I’ve been through .

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