Is the Quantified Self Selfish?

On Saturday I attended UK GovCamp 2013 – the annual unconference for government types to discuss open data, cloud systems, business collaboration and so on. One of the sessions on the agenda today was quantified self – so I had to go.

It turns out that government folk think a little deeper than just the latest tracking devices and examples of cool experiments. They consider the wider social impact of the new trend – asking what the government, the NHS and even the global population can do with this data that people are generating.

It may seem scary offering up our body data to the government, but if we choose to offer it, then you can ignore the ‘big brother’ side of things and start to consider why it will be useful. Having aggregate data of people around the world tracking multiple areas of their body (food intake, weight, activity etc.) means we can begin to dictate policy on incredibly large scale, long-term, organic data. Heck, we might even find that Bulletproof Coffee is good for your health after all!


But at this moment in time, the quantified self is a little selfish. We use the data for our own learnings, improving our own health and perfecting our bodies.


[/pullquote]But at this moment in time, the quantified self is a little selfish. We use the data for our own learnings, improving our own health and perfecting our bodies. This is fantastic and we invest a lot of time, money and effort in doing so. But the potential for this data has far greater social impact, that means holding it back is, in some ways, a selfish act.

Now it is not that we don’t choose to give away this information, the large part of the problem is there is currently no way to do so. We can make our profiles public, but is the raw data then public? Most of the time no. We also often give the companies providing the tools we use the ability to use our data in aggregate, but it is then their prerogative on how much of this data they make available to others.

There are a few requirements needed until we can reach this ideal of data the government can use. We need standardised data (sorry, but Nike Fuel is not a metric), we need to have enough people using tracking on a regular basis – the critical mass – and we need enough diversity, enough bases covered, enough elements tracked, so we can say what directly had the impact on what – for example, maybe a slight change in time people go to bed can affect the immune system’s response to a virus – that’s powerful information to have.

So what are the next steps? First, a dashboard for us to input our data to. This is already in the works, so let’s not worry about that. Second, a creative commons style license for our own body data – let’s choose to give people, the government and companies access to our body data, with or without commercial use, with direction to make it anonymous (or maybe not) and whatever else restriction we choose.

This feels like a good start – what say you?

One Comment

  1. Good discussion. It’s all about the value exchange. What is the govt going to give me or teach me in return for sharing my data?

    It’s not about money but insight. If they helped me analyze my data and compare me to a peer group, that might be enough. But simply giving it up for the greater long term good may not be enough for most people.

    You would also want some boundaries (at least in the US) that it wasn’t used to increase your costs for health insurance or life insurance.

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