The quantified self and data ownership

I bought a cool new gadget today that tracks exercise and sleep quality! Then I had a change of heart and cancelled the order a few minutes later. In retrospect, I’ve realized that the most-popular gadgets that track daily activity have one fatal flaw… all your biometric data are belong to us!

The Quantified Self (QS) describes a growing trend among tech-savvy individuals who use electronic gadgets and/or smartphones to track their day-to-day activities (e.g., exercise, sleep, glasses of water, weight, bad habits). There are a plethora of websites and gadgets to track these activities, to help people tally and graph their achievements and misdeeds over time. The problem with many of these tools is that we provide the data, and the service providers own it.

Today, the gadget that I nearly bought was the “FitBit Flex”. At a glance, it had cool features: low profile wristband, waterproof, pedometer, tap my wrist three times to trigger bedtime mode, and I would only need charge it about two times a week. While the hardware was enticing, there was an essential feature that was missing: the ability to download my data for my own use. Granted, for $50/yr, I would be able to download aggregated data in FitBit’s preferred format. But for that price, I feel like I should be able to tap my data stream on my own terms. Am I wrong for expecting that level of access to my own biometric data?!

In PBS Idea Channel’s recent video about QS, Mike Rugnetta asks: “What does effective self-tracking look like – in what situations is it inspiring, and in what situations is it oppressive?”

Self-tracking is inspiring insomuch as we can tailor the data to our own meaningful purposes, adding and combining other data sources for a rich presentation of the aspects that aren’t captured within a single application’s restrictions. Self-tracking is oppressive insomuch as we are limited by data collectors who hold our data hostage within applications that quantify a handful of selected biometrics, and that encourage competition among other users within that limited scope. We are all individuals, but typical apps and gadgets don’t allow us to truly integrate our individual differences outside of heavily structured data visualization frameworks. Why should we pay FitBit, or any other company that collects our personal data… only to receive a small portion of summary data in return?

Here’s what I’d like to see: An affordable open-source device that we can wear, that gives us the option to download and explore our own biometric data. I don’t want to pay annual subscription fees for pretty-looking aggregate output based on others’ comparative performance. Please do track how many steps that I take in a day, do track my good/bad night’s sleep, do track my heart rate, but also give me the option to tap the bracelet four times when I smoke a cigarette, or tap three times when I drink a can of soda (just examples – not my personal vices). Give users the opportunity to customize biofeedback and behavioral data for their individual situations on their own terms! We’re not all competitive joggers who live by the pedometer alone, and we don’t all want to store our health behaviors in a cloud-based application database! I want a device that can provide data… raw data… without paying an annual service fee. What does it take to come up with a biometric gadget that the open source community can work with?


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