Why People Collect Data

Nathan Yau over at Flowing Data started a fascinating discussion last week. He asked his readers why they collect data about themselves, what they’ve learned from it, or why they don’t collect any data at all.

23 people answered the call and shared their insights. There are many positive self-discovery comments like the stories we hear at QS Show&Tell meetups, but here are some outliers that stood out for me:
I collect my blood glucose level every 5 minutes through a continuous glucose monitor stuck in my gut. I log carbs, protein and fat intake… I am a type 1 diabetic. All data I can collect, analyze and take action on improves my health and prolongs my life.

And it’s a huge pain in the ass.”



“I keep a record of whether it rains or not when I commute to work… Why? To silence the people who say ‘I don’t cycle because it rains too much’”

“My self-model is gooey. I like it that way. I don’t want it to harden… If I capture the data consciously, that means I’m thinking about the data while I’m living my life. Data capture would therefore be intruding on my life experience. No thank you. I don’t want “data” to dominate my life. I don’t want to live a second-order life. First-order, please.”

The question of why to measure yourself is a good one. With a strong enough reason, like love of data or a health condition, motivation for daily tracking remains high. Without a good reason, or when the reason you were tracking gets resolved in some way, life kicks back in and tracking can fall by the wayside until a new reason comes along.


Here’s how I think about it: 
Collecting data on yourself is one powerful tool in the toolbox of life optimization. You can use it when you need it, you can use it for fun, or you can choose another tool.

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2 Responses to Why People Collect Data

  1. Matthew Cornell says:

    One word: Happiness. My thought is that the central question – and the whole point to self-tracking – is to gain insight, change behavior, and ultimately be happier. My longer reply is here, FYI: http://www.matthewcornell.org/2010/08/why-collect-data-about-yourself-to-be-happy.html

  2. Alexandra Carmichael says:

    Interesting point, Matthew! My main reason for starting tracking was to eliminate pain. So combining our two reasons, and some of the others on Flowing Data, the general human reduce-pain-increase-pleasure principle seems to be at play, with self-tracking as a tool that can facilitate this process.

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