QS LA Confidential (Part Two)

M: I guess the topic of health is universal and more straightforward: you need to get rid of pain by eating healthy, working out more, taking your meds or improving your sleep. Health is more common to track nowadays (my mom has high blood pressure, so she checks it at least twice a day and writes down results in her paper notebook).
Eric: Tracking your health and body metrics is an interesting topic. At the QS conference in May, David Asprey (biohacker and author of Bullet Proof Executive – http://www.bulletproofexec.com/) gave a great talk on self tracking and lab testing. People are starting to go to independent labs directly for tests they would normally have done through a doctor. These labs will take blood samples, check for vitamin deficiencies, and even design special diets based on what you need. Another interesting company is 23andMe (http://23andme.com). It does personal genome sequencing by taking a saliva sample and gives a detailed diagnosis on health risks and genetic traits.
M: Why don’t doctors do that during annual physicals? Don’t people trust their doctors or can’t afford medical services and hence prefer a DIY version?
Eric: Some doctors are more progressive and open to sharing more data with their patients, and other more traditional ones aren’t there yet. People are definitely taking power into their own hands in terms of health and well being. As costs come down and people become more interested in taking charge of their own health I think the DIY trend will continue.
M: But self-tracking is more health focused than other things. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a comprehensive app that tells it all…
Eric: Many self trackers focus on monitoring health, mood and stress. But there are even gadgets (NeuroSky) and apps that can track your brainwave activity when you meditate (checking for focus levels and beta, alpha, theta and delta activity). This isn’t something I regularly track, but is more of an experiment at the moment.
Personally, I’ve tracked a lot of areas in my life, not just health related things. Years ago I started off with my personal memex project to build a single app that tracked all aspects of my life: a place to write down memories and help with recall, my travel journal, research notes, and eventually made it a place to track my workouts. I still use it quite a bit, but I it required a lot of manual data entry. For me the appeal of Quantified Self and the new health-related gadgets is the tracking is mostly transparent and data capture is done for you automatically.
M: So what do you work on now?
Eric: I’ve been focused on consolidating and analyzing my self-tracking data from a number of gadgets (Fitbit, Zeo, Withings, Garmin, etc.). The challenge with many of the vendors is that data is usually transferred to their own site, but they don’t always allow you to easily get access for your own analysis. You’re locked in to the reports and graphs they provide and sometimes have a limited view of historical data (Fitbit only shows 30-days of past data). Some companies have created APIs to get data, but it can be difficult to consolidate all of this to a central pIace. I found it very helpful to analyze data (sleep, activity, gps/location etc.) from all of these sources and create my own customized reports and charts that have really helped with discovering patterns and staying active. This project is called TRAQS (Tools for Reporting & Analysis of the Quantified Self – http://traqs.me). My plan is to make the app available to the general public very soon.
M: Why do you think QS is so crazy popular on the West Coast?
Eric: Well, it originated in San Francisco which is both very tech and health-centric. When I went to QS Conference, there seemed to be a lot of health/personal development enthusiasts. I think the appeal of QS is the combination of technology, health, personal development, and the DIY vibe appeals to many hackers.
M: It feels that people bring their personal discoveries to another level by sharing and creating social good. Thank you, Eric, for your time and this great information on QS!
PS I checked out Eric’s blog and was very impressed with his post 5 years ago on mind mapping and goal setting.

See Eric’s other Presentations on Location Tracking and QS Device Show and Tell
The last LA QS event’s list of some of the medtech/QS sites: Cakehealth, Healthcare, Avado_Individuals, HealthVault, Medikeeper; Financial: Mint, Indinero.


QS LA Confidential (Part One)

Two weeks ago while in LA, I met with Eric Blue, co-organizer of LA Quantified Self (QS) Meetup Community.
M: How did you get involved in QS?
Eric: I’ve been interested in self-tracking for several years now and started off by doing my own experiments. A major motivator was monitoring my lower back pain that started about 2 1/2 years ago. Self tracking helped me to become more conscious of my physical activity. Around this time I read a book “Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything” by Gordon Bell. Gordon had been working for 15 years at Microsoft in research and development and developed his project MyLifeBits (the ultimate self-tracking project). I decided to check out Gordon’s work in depth and discovered the Quantified Self community through one of his blog posts. In May 2011 I went to the 1st QS Conference, which was attended by about 450 people. That’s where I connected with John Amschler, who originally started the LA QS Meetup and also co-founded the San Diego Meetup. Since then I help organize the LA Meetup events (every 4-6 weeks).
M: Tell me more about popular QS gadgets and projects on the West Coast.
Eric: Fitbit is popular now as it saves time on manual data entry. It counts steps, distance, calories burned, quality of sleep, etc. Jawbone recently came out with the Up product (wrist band and iPhone app) that tracks your daily activity and inspires you to live healthier (Read Eric’s post about it). And, Zeo measures brainwave activity in order to detect when you’re asleep and what stage of sleep you’re in (light, deep, REM, etc.).
M: So what kind of self- tracking do you do?
Eric: I started doing different things, like capturing photos and memories from great trips (part of my Personsal Memex project, similar to MyLifeBits). I also would manually track my workouts. I was measuring my caloric intake and physical activity which could then be graphed over time. This helped with analysis of my own activity patterns. I’d also set goals like walking 5 miles a day and even wrote a program that would automatically send me text messages as reminders when I needed to go on walks. I eventually moved away from manual data entry to using different gadgets that automatically capture health-related data (Fitbit, Zeo, Withings, UP, etc.)

M: Why do you think people do self-tracking?
Eric: Mainly to help with motivation and making change happen. If you raise awareness and bring visibility, then people can focus on what’s important. Mint.com is a great example of this model. With the combination of nice graphs and budget reminders, it really helps people pay attention to their spending habits.
M: It helps you track but it doesn’t really tell you yet what goals to set, so they could be very subjective. The app will help achieve goals when you know what you need to work on…
Eric: Some gadgets have software that helps set goals. For example, with Fitbit, you buy the device for $100 then you can sign up for a premium subscription that lets you create goals. It takes into account your age, sex, height (BMI formula). Based on your recent activity it tells you how active you currently are: sedentary, lightly active, active… So it helps set goals… in terms of how many calories you need to burn. Over a 12-week period it will set a reasonable goal to gradually increase your overall activity level by the end of the program.
M: Tell me about some interesting QS projects in the LA area.
Eric: We had a great presentation at the last Meetup event here at LA QS by Bryan Dorsey – WorkFoodOut, who lost over 55 pounds by calorie counting. He eventually turned his calorie counting system into a web application that can be used by other people.
M: It is great that he was so determined and disciplined too. Usually there are so many “nice to haves”, but when do people actually say: “enough is enough, it has to be done now”? When do you decide to finally do what you want to do?
Eric: I think people can reach a tipping point, or a point of no return. Or when there is enough peer pressure or other motivating factors. Say, if you realize that the benefit of doing something is bigger than not doing it, or when the current loss/penalty is way too high… Years ago I participated in a kind of “new year resolution weight loss competition” at work with my buddies. I had to lose 6% of body weight – 13 pounds and it had to be done in 6 weeks; starting after the New Year and completed by Feb 14. Money was involved, and I did it.
Another time, with a similar competition, I did an overly aggressive diet because the penalty was too high: if you didn’t lose weight then you had to pay $100 for every pound that was not lost… To lose 1 pound a week is healthy, but taking onlye 1,000 calories a day is super aggressive (and not recommended at all). But I did it. Peer pressure and a financial penalty really motivate. Since then I’ve learned the secret to setting and reaching realistic goals is moderation.
M: I’m sure peer pressure helps motivation but an accountability partner or mentor would be good too, as long as you are not on your own… But definitely the process is about awareness, benefits/penalties and other motivation.

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