What is Quantified Self? A beginners guide

Discussions at the QS15 Quantified Self conference in San Francisco 2015 (photo: Magnus Nilsson)

Today we can find out much more about ourselves than ever before. And we don’t need to ask anyone for permission. What we measure and follow up of ourselves is called self-measurement, or Quantified Self.

For some time I have worked with medical technology and mobile development in combination.

Traditionally, medical technology, or MedTech as many people say today, has been focused on machinery and prostheses. Things that you can touch. Increasingly, medical technology is also programs in computers and mobile phones.

The moment you leave the traditional, physical world you begin to handle data. This can be a patient’s name and address. And blood values. And breathing. And pulse. Or none of these, or all together.

I don’t know what you think, but to me it’s natural to think big when talking about data. How can you compare one person’s data with data from a whole population? We strive to find patterns in the big picture – patterns that might be invisible to humans, but detectable by a machine.

The concept Quantified Self is the opposite to this eagerness to focus on big connections. Well, maybe not the opposite – but it is all about starting with the individual.

It is customary to talk about n = 1. The study is about 1, about me.

Quantified Self is a niche social movement, where the individual measures and monitors herself. In many cases it is about health – how can I improve how I feel? – but in principle the concept include everything that any single person wants to (and can) measure. And of course, you want to draw conclusions from what you measure.

Self-measurement may be to weigh yourself on a regular basis and record your weight on a graph paper. It can also be studying your sleep (today there are many gadgets that can measure how you sleep). Or it is creating a systematic picture of how many emails you get, and what you do with them.

The core of Quantified Self is to reflect and analyze the result of your research. Obviously it’s great to influence your situation based on what you learn, but this step is somewhat left out of the Quantified Self model.

It’s open to anyone to measure oneself without worrying about anyone else, but there’s also an organized network. They have a good model for how to present your project to others:

  1. What did you do?
  2. How did you do it?
  3. What did you learn?

It can be a study as simple as wanting to run faster, and therefore trained in rapid intervals. You’ve been training in different environments and recorded the results. The conclusion is that it’s better to increase speed by training in easy uphill. (If that’s what you come up with.)

At the QS15 conference in San Francisco Shannon Conner took the drama out of what self-measurement is:

We start measuring from the baby age, when our parents buy a copy of a “My first year book”.

You may sigh over this measuring craze as just another example of how a lost middle-class is trying to create meaning in their meaningless lives. I don’t know, that may be true? But here is what I think about self measurement:

  • We are free to do what we ourselves think is interesting.
  • In the same way that n = 1, n = 1000. The individual’s own measurement gets increasingly relevant when other people measures the same or similar things.
  • The individual’s curiosity and motivation can inspire new and hitherto unexplored angles in research, technology development – and society at large.

Personally, I have several measuring tools, especially activity bracelets and apps. I use them because I am interested in how they work and I work in the industry. Yet I’m quite uninterested in my own data. I am far more interested in how others are using their measurements to reach new insights, where reflection on a problem often leads to life-changing solutions. That’s why I follow those who are active in the Quantified Self movement.

You are an individual, but not alone.

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