The QS World I Would Like to Live In

In the QS world I’d like to live in, our personal data would be easily available to us to learn from using many different methods and tools. Here are some conditions I think would make this easier:

  1. Data can be exported from the various systems we use into a simple format for exploration.
  2. We can store and backup our data using whatever method we want.
  3. We can share our data with whomever we want.
  4. We can rescind permission to look at our data.
  5. We can flow our data into diverse visualization templates and analytical systems.

I’ve tried to express these conditions briefly and simply, but any of them – and certainly all of them together – require changes in the systems we currently use, and these changes may be challenging for technical, business, social, and political reasons.

I know many people in our community have worked on parts of this problem, and I’m interested in your comments and ideas.

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11 Responses to The QS World I Would Like to Live In

  1. I think that one of the reasons that this area still needs thought is that the idea of owning data is not well defined, even though it’s easy to use terms like “our personal data”, which convey the impression of something precious and private.

    What happens if we use a term like “detailed descriptions of me”, rather than “my personal data”?

  2. Gary Wolf says:

    I very much agree that “owning data” is not well defined. At QS events people I talk with often say something like “I want to own my own data.” Much as a sympathize with the experiences and desires that motivate this statement, I find myself resisting using this vocabulary. “Ownership” does not seem like quite the right concept here. Perhaps ownership always suggests that the value of something lies in its potential exchange in a commercial transaction. But most of what we want to do with the data we collect about ourselves does not involve transactions. Why use a commercial vocabulary which only clouds the issue? (I like the word “observations.” Data, as I’m thinking about it, is a particular kind of observation.)

  3. I think the idea of ownership conveys the idea of rights or power over something. When we say “my data”, perhaps we’re really saying “data someone else holds that I feel as though I should have some control over”.

    There are many reasons we might feel this way – e.g. “I worked to create it and it has monetary value”, or “Someone could use that to harm me” or “I could learn something of uniquely personal value from that”.

    We might not be looking for just one way of treating these kinds of data/observation – there might be more than one category depending on why we want the control.

  4. Nate Swart says:

    To me, it’s more about unadulterated access to my data so I can use, analyze, and remash it. This is especially important in an area as nebulous and abstract as QS.

    I’ve been working to address some of this in my spare time. I still have another week or two before I can start releasing anything into the public, but here is a link to watch if anyone is interested:

  5. Gary Wolf says:

    I now see that my idea that we ought to be able to “rescind permission” is full of complications. Back in the days of the WELL, an early online discussion board, the motto was “you own your own words.” But eventually the inevitable happened. Somebody went back and erased all their many contributions to important discussions, leaving gaping gaps that felt like vandalism. Once they were shared in a dialog, it didn’t seem right to withdraw them. Perhaps there are latent issues with sharing data that are similar to this.

  6. Gary Hopewell says:

    6. Getting data doesn’t cost anything.
    7. Data is available in the most-complete, fine-grained original form.

    FitBit makes you pay money to get your data out, and you can’t get minute-by-minute movement. I don’t know why any QS people would want a tool that doesn’t give you the Q, but they seem to be popular despite their awful policies.

  7. Don says:

    I think one issue that it will be hard to get around is proprietary data formats. Large companies have no incentive to help software communicate with each other, because it keeps their customers locked in. A friend of mine refers to “software mafia” when it comes to this topic. The development of open source standards has taken us a long way. Unfortunately there are a lot of people who go with the proprietary systems because they want technical support and the mindset behind “One never loses a job going with Microsoft/INSERT BIG TECH COMPANY HERE”

    The other problem is we need to go towards more encrypted file standards so people can feel more secure sharing their data. I do not feel like sharing anything confidential online because I do not trust many of these companies that resell the data. If everything were uploaded with encryption keys that were given away to selected people, making it opaque to all the intermediaries on the net, people would feel more secure. Unfortunately, most people do not even know how to even set up encrypted PGP.

    However, revoking access is basically impossible in the real world – one some one has seen it once, they can save it locally once. So one will always need to be careful when sharing data, because likely it will be shared forever.

  8. Ken Keiter says:

    I’m really pleased to see how well your list aligns with mine! I’ve been working on something called Foxing for several months now, and will be releasing it within the next two to three months. It’s a personal analytics platform and — if you’ll permit a shameless plug — the idea is pretty simple:

    Foxing takes the statistics you choose to track and, using machine learning and statistical analysis tools, comes up with a “unified equation” behind them. From there, you set goals, and Foxing can tell you when and how to achieve them by making minute changes — it can even tell you how they affect one another. There’s a big difference between knowing yourself, and understanding yourself; most self-tracking tools get at the what and how, but not the why, and that’s what differentiates Foxing.

    Aside from being a personal analytics platform, at launch, Foxing will connect with around 30 different devices out of the box — pulling in data from each automatically. There’s a full API, as well. You have total control over how your data is stored, analyzed, shared, and backed up — and I’m even working to create an open standard for quantified self data exchange, which should be released alongside Foxing.

    Sorry for the shameless plug! The beta list is filling up quickly, but there’s still a decent number of spots available. You can get on the list at

    If quantified self is really going to take off, we have to truly embrace the need for privacy and the concept of data ownership. Foxing’s policy will always be: your body, your data, under your control.

  9. Pingback: The QS World I’d Like to Live In « Breves de La Vigi

  10. Pingback: Gary Wolf: beschikbaar stellen van je eigen data belangrijkste volgende stap - Numrush

  11. Craig says:

    I’d also want to allow my data to be used for medical research purposes – to be available to select medical institutes who are studying human behaviour and obesity. This isnt consent to share data with anyone – just certified medical research labs and on an anonymous basis.

    Also, on a more general note, Im surprised at how relatively minor changes to exercise and diet can have a significant impact to fitness and weight. Tracking is the starting point of many health benefits.

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