Which is Better: Automated or Manual?

For many of us, the answer seems obvious: why do something manually when you can automate it? But when it comes to personal data, automation involves a trade-off. As Project HealthDesign‘s principal investigator Anind K. Dey points out in this blog post, automation suffers from the drawback of “out of sight, out of mind.” (Dey is referencing work by QS contributor Ian Li, especially his “Mobile Impact” project.)

The important point of Dey’s post is that if you don’t give any attention to collection, you may not integrate the data into your consciousness in a meaningful way. Manual collection, while more laborious, also provides opportunities for increased self-awareness.

The point of self-tracking is not the data, it’s the meaning; generating meaning is an activity of consciousness. There is a limit to the virtues of passivity.

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6 Responses to Which is Better: Automated or Manual?

  1. Alexandra Carmichael says:

    Wow, Gary, I was just having this conversation with a friend the other day – she brought up the valid point that Foursquare worked, but Loopt didn’t. Foursquare has active check-ins, while Loopt passively records where you are. The active-ness of checking in on Foursquare is one important factor in keeping people engaged.
    Perhaps more passive tracking can be reserved for health issues that you don’t need to see every day but want to be able to look back on for trends if a health question emerges.
    So whether automated or manual, active or passive, is better depends on the situation, I think.

  2. Eric says:

    Alexandra, I think that may be a very good point. I’m starting to think that for myself that non-automated is usually better. Perhaps there can be a hybrid where you actively monitor and can check a variety of automated generated data.
    Lately I have created to many active checks and it’s gotten to be too much of an interruption.

  3. Improbus says:

    Automation has it’s place but there is a reason I drive a manual transmission and not an automatic. It’s called control. When it comes to work though I try to automate everything. I simply can not process everything in my work queue with out automating some of it.

  4. Bill Schuller says:

    Quickest of thoughts : Automated recording with notification. Automatically check me in, but buzz me to let me know you did…
    I’ve been struggling lately balancing automation (for instance Future Checkin iPhone app for foursquare since it was mentioned) against forgetting to manually record. If I forget to record, the datapoint is gone, regardless of how connected I am to the data when I _do_ remember to manually collect.

  5. John Amschler says:

    I agree that FourSquare is more popular, but I can’t bring myself to say Loopt didn’t work.
    Loopt introduced the concept/usefulness of Location Awareness to many people and it had created an initial mass of users necessary for the success of the new gaming-style location apps.
    IMHO Loopt was successful, and the passive/automated interaction is simply opening the door for more complex decision making which will lead to more face to face interaction for users.
    Since the beginning of the year I have used Foursquare, Gowalla, Yelp, Twitter (location aware) and Lattitude to checkin or allow people to know where I am and understand how it fits into my life.
    Not once has it directly led to me meeting up with someone face to face.
    Most of my friends do not subscribe to this type of technology because they call each other when they want to meet up. When we do meet up, checking in simply takes away from our person to person interaction, thus they don’t see how check-ins will improve their quality of life (note: most of them are hard core mobile technology designers HW/Embedded/SW/Production/Test).
    I agree with them – the simple check-in won’t enhance their lives until they have a critical mass of friends in the game; however, many of them already have critical mass of friends outside the game, so it doesn’t add to their lives.
    I can peak their interest when I discuss a more complex system using the automated check-ins such as the Loopt Concept. A system where you train the device to alert you based upon information such as last time users have seen each other, duration of visits, work schedule, etc. Only then do they get more interested.
    I believe their interest comes because they can understand how an ‘aware alert’ adds more to their life than a simple check-in alert does.
    For instance – they don’t care if I’m at the beach, however, they do care that I’m at the beach at 11PM and the grunions are running.
    They also don’t care that I’m simply hiking Iron Mountain on a Wednesday Morning at 7AM; however, if they have the day off and live close to that trail they may come over and meet up with me or ping me and ask if I want to join them for breakfast afterward.
    What we need are life enhancement systems that give much, much more than they take. A proper algorithm will reduce the cognitive load of the user and increase the benefits to the user.
    IMHO FourSquare needed Loopt-like systems to get where it is, and Loopt needs FourSquare-like systems in order to get users comfortable with enhanced automated.
    One day we will get to systems that are simple enough to deal with the complex lives we lead!

  6. Alexandra Carmichael says:

    John, thanks so much for your analysis! I find it very interesting that despite all the various location-tracking systems you use, it has never led to a single face-to-face meetup.
    And yes, my comment about Loopt was overly simplistic – as with any new field, all current solutions are sort of like shots in the dark, gradually moving closer to the optimal solution that will be seamless, simple, and satisfying to use.

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