Personal analytics are the first step

Yesterday, Stephen Wolfram put out a fantastic look at everything he’s been able to measure about himself for over two decades. The volume of data he’s kept is staggering, as is the mix of curiosity and foresight he had to begin collecting some of it in the first place (keystrokes?!). And the things he extrapolated range from a profound look at when ideas form to a heartwarming white stripe that is quantitative proof of a man’s love for his family.

It’s inspiring, but it’s also a little disappointing. Wolfram only has this view because 20 years ago he started keeping track. He kept email archives and meeting schedules, logged his phone calls and started wearing a pedometer. If you were to start  today, you wouldn’t have that wealth of data for years to come. Luckily, you didn’t start today, you just might not have noticed when you started. If you use webmail, you’ve got email since the day you made the account (you don’t delete anything, right?). Your phone has a call history in it, and might already tell you who your favorite people are. Your accounts on social sites are a running log of your thoughts and activities. Your data is everywhere.

There’s the other problem: your data is everywhere. Without a good deal of effort, you can’t mash sleep measurements with your calendar to see when work stresses you out. You can’t rationalize the $25 you spent at the bar you checked into with the exercise you recorded on the dance floor. All of your data is somewhere else—actually many somewheres—which is the problem the Locker Project and similar efforts are trying to solve. Once you put all of your data in one place, you can analyze it ’til the cows come home, which your location history tells you they do slightly faster when the wind is in the right direction.

The past few years have seen plenty of personal analytics products pop up, so it’s safe to say people are interested in this stuff—but wait, there’s more. With what you know about your friends, or the data they’ll share with you, you get a whole new layer of social analytics. And forget analytics; you get a whole new universe of interactions. You get warned that all your friends already saw the link you’re about to post. Your friends and family pool their data to build an ongoing birthday scrapbook containing every photo taken at every place you’ve been together. Your doctor calls because you have a genetic marker for high blood pressure and haven’t been jogging much since all those restaurants on your vacation.

It’s nifty in the extreme what Wolfram put together, and there’s a lot more low-hanging fruit for personal analytics and everything you can learn from it. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking it ends there.

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