Tag Archives: data access

What We Are Reading

We hope you enjoy this week’s What We’re Reading list!

The Wow of Wearables by Joseph Kvedar. An excellent post here in the wake of the “Smartphones vs. Wearables” hype in the past weeks. Favorite part:

“I’d have to say that reports of the death of wearables have been greatly exaggerated. The power of sensor-generated data in personal health and chronic illness management is simply too powerful to ignore.”

Survival of the Fittest: Health Care Accelerators Evolve Toward Specialization by Lisa Suennen. If you’re at all interested in the recent surge in health and healthcare focused accelerators this is for you. Excellent reporting. (Thanks for sharing Maarten!)

Your Brain Is Primed To Reach False Conclusions by Christie Aschwanden. Fascinating piece here about the nature of the “illusion of causality.”

A Few Throughs About Patient Health Data by Emil Chiauzzi. Emil, Research Director at PatientsLikeMe, lays out four point to consider when thinking about how to best use and grow self-collected patient data.

Having Parkinson’s since I was 13 has made me an expert in self-care by Sara Riggare.

I am the only person with the whole picture. To me, self-care is everything I do to stay as healthy as possible with a disease that is a difficult life companion. It entails everything from making sure I take my medication in the optimal way, to eating healthily, getting enough sleep, to making sure I stay physically active. I also make an effort to learn as much as I can about my condition; my neurologist says that I know more about Parkinson’s research than he does. I don’t find that odd, since he needs to try to stay on top of research in probably hundreds of neurological diseases, whereas I focus on just one.

From Bathroom to Healthroom: How Magical Technology will Revolutionize Human Health by Juhan Sonin. A beautifully written and illustrated essay on the design of our  personal healthcare future.

Experimenting with sprints at the end of exercise routines by Gustavo M. Gustavo is a person with type 1 diabetes. After reading that post-exercise high intensity exertion might have an effect on blood glucose he put it to the test.

On Using RescueTime to Monitor Activity and Increase Productivity by Tamara Hala. Tamara walks us through the last three years of her RescueTime data and how she used that information to understand her work and productivity.

How Do You Find Time to Write? by Jamie Todd Rubin. Jamie has been writing for 576 consecutive days. How does he do it? A mixture of data and insight of course!

ILoveYouMaps Say “I Love You” With Mapping by Daniel Rosner. Wonderful to see CHI papers ending up on Medium. This seems like a fun self-tracking/art project.

ShannonConnors_4yearsfood Cleaning up and visualizing my food log data with JMP 12 by Shannon Conners. Once again, Shannon displays a wonderful ability to wow us with her data analysis and visualization. Above is four years of food tracking data!

Two Trains: Sonification of Income Inequality on the NYC Subway by Brian Foo. Brian created this data-driven musical composition based on income data from neighborhoods the border the 2 train. Beautiful work.

Access Links
Walgreens adds PatientsLikeMe data on medication side effects
How Open Data Can Reveal—And Correct—The Faults In Our Health System
Big Data is our Generation’s Civil Rights Issue, and We Don’t Know It.

From the Forum
Creating Scales for Quantifying Action
Sharing Anonymized Data

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QS Access: Personal Data Freedom

We are happy to welcome this guest post by Madeleine Ball. Madeleine is the Senior Research Scientist at PersonalGenomes.org, co-founder of the upcoming Open Humans project, and the Director of Research at the Harvard Personal Genome Project. She can be found online @madprime.

MBallThe digital trails we create are becoming thick and personal. Increasingly, people choose to collect meaningful data about themselves. Activity tracking to understand health and fitness. Genetic testing to understand ancestry and inheritance. Incidental data also expands: smartphones quietly observe our location through the day. Who gets to see our data? Can we see our own data? Beyond “privacy policy” documents, people are starting to call for something stronger: for personal data ownership.

Unpacking “data ownership”

It’s worth unpacking this phrase. What do we mean by “data ownership”? If we want to see changes, we need to start with a little more clarity.

Legally, data is not property. There is no copyright ownership of facts, as they are not “creative work”: the United States Supreme Court famously established this in the landmark case Feist vs. Rural. They are not patents, there is no invention. They are not trademarks. There is no “intellectual property” framework for data.

 Yes, data is controlled: through security measures, access control, and data use agreements that legally restrict its usage. But it’s not owned. So let’s set aside the word “ownership” and talk about what we really want.

Control over what others do

One thing we might want is: “to control what others do with our data”. Whom they share it with, what they use it for. Practically this can be difficult to enforce, but the legal instruments exist.

 If a company is generating data about you, then the “control” you have is spelled out in their contractual agreement with you. Check the policies: “Privacy policy” or “Data use policy” documents are a standard feature.

 Think about what you really want. Are you opposed to commercial use of your data? Look for words like “sell”, “lease”, and “commercial”. Are you concerned about privacy? Look for words like “share”, “third-parties”, and “aggregate” – and if individual data is shared, find out what that data is.

Companies won’t change if nobody is paying attention and nobody knows what they want. We can encourage change by getting specific, and by paying more attention to current policies. Raise awareness, criticize the bad actors, and praise the good ones.

Personal data access and freedom

The flip side of “data control” is our own rights: what can we do with our own data? We want access to our personal data, and the right to use it.

 This idea is newer, and it has a lot of potential. This was what Tim Berners-Lee called for, when he called for data ownership last fall.

“That data that [firms] have about you isn’t valuable to them as it is to you.”

I think it’s worth listening, when the inventor of the world wide web thinks we should have a right to our data.

So let’s spell it out. Let’s turn this into a list of freedoms we demand. We should be inspired by the free software and free culture movements, which advocate for other acts of sharing with users and consumers. In particular, inspired by Richard Stallman’s “Four Freedoms” for free software, I have a suggested list.

Three Freedoms of Personal Data Rights

Raw data access – Access to digital files in standard, non-proprietary file formats.

Without raw data, we are captive to the “interface” to data that a data holder provides. Raw data is the “source code” underlying this experience. Access to raw data is fundamental to giving us the freedom to use our data in other ways.

Freedom to share - No restriction on how we share our data with others.

Typically, when data holders provide access to data, their data use agreements limit how this data may be shared. These agreements are vital to protecting user privacy rights when third parties have access, but we have the right make our own sharing decisions about our own data.

Unrestricted use – Freedom to modify and use our data for any purpose.

 Data use agreements can also impose other limitations on what individuals can do with data. Any restriction imposed on our use of our data impinges on our personal data rights. Freedom for personal data means having the right to do anything we wish with data that came from us.

In the short term, access to raw data can seem obscure and irrelevant: most users cannot explore this data. But like the source code to software, access to this data has great potential: a few will be able to use it, and they can share their methods and software to create new tools.

Raw data access is also an opportunity for us to share for the greater good, on our own terms. We could share this data with research studies, to advance knowledge and technology. We could share data with developers, to develop software around it. We could share it with educators, with artists, with citizen scientists. We could even cut the red tape: dedicate our data public domain and make it a public good.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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QS Access: Backing up HealthKit Data

As you may know, we’re very interested in how HealthKit is shaping and extending the reach of personal self-tracking data. Last week, during Apple’s quarterly earnings call, Tim Cook mentioned that “There’s also been incredible interest in HealthKit, with over 600 developers now integrating it into their apps.” (emphasis mine).

This morning, we were alerted by Sam Rijver and Daniel Yates that special attention to how you backup up your phone is required in order to backup and have access to your HealthKit data:


For those of you that are unfamiliar with backup options for your iOS device. Here’s a quick gif to walk you through the process of encrypting your iOS backup so that you can restore your HealthKit data if anything happens to your device:

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QS Access: Exporting Uber Trip Data?

Quantified Self Labs is dedicated to the idea that data access matters. Moving forward, we’re going to be exploring different aspects of how data access affects our personal and public lives. Stay tuned to our QS Access channel for more news, thoughts, and insights.


On January 13th Uber, a wildly popular and often scrutinized ride share company, announced they have entered into an agreement with the City of Boston to share anonymized data generated by users of the service. This is the first partnership between Uber and a local government body, but points to the ability to potentially partner with cities that want to take a peak at the vast amount of data about when and where people are traveling within their municipality. Our first reaction to this was to explore if Uber has provided any method for it’s own users to access and export their trip data. Surely if they can able to export and pass along data to a third party, they can pass that data to their own users?

In our exploration of the mobile and web user platforms we found that Uber currently does not offer users with an easy way to access their data. As an Uber customer, you are provided with email receipts of your trips that include travel information, a route of the ride, and cost. This information is also available through their online user account page. However, it is not exportable and accessible in a method that allows individuals to store information in a consistent and machine readable format (such as a csv file). In our search for methods to assist in exporting Uber ride data, I stumbled upon this data scraper on Github developed by Josh Hunt. It’s useful to know that Uber has a standard no scraping clause in in it’s Terms of Service, but individual users accessing their own data for their own reasons is probably not what these clauses are meant to protect.

Aside from data access issues there is of course open questions about how Uber will implement privacy protections governing sensitive user data. Of course, Uber is not without fault in this space. The now infamous blog post pointing to their ability to track one-night stands (archived here) was enough for some users to question ethical standards within Uber. In their announcement, Uber touched on this issue by stating that they will provide some privacy protections by only offering anonymized aggregated data to third party partners. Protecting user privacy through data aggregation and anonymization is a step in the right direction, but there remain these open issues around data access for users. Uber and the cities they partner with will learn a lot about how we travel, but the partnership between Uber and their users could be improved by helping users (myself included) understand their own data and behavior by allowing easier access to the data we contribute when we use the service.

We’re interested to hear from our readers about their experiences using the above mentioned tool, or similar tools to access and export their Uber trip data. Please let us know. We’ve also reached out to Uber for comment.


I reached out to Uber Support over Twitter and received the following response:

“Unfortunately this is not currently a feature, however we’re always looking to improve and I’ll pass your suggestion along! *NM” (link)

Source: Driving Solutions to Build Smarter Cities (Uber)

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Downloading Fitbit Data: Update

We’re posting a quick note today to let you know that we’ve updated our “How To Download Your Fitbit Data” post. It now included separate instructions for both the old and new versions of Google Spreadsheets. This is just the first in a series of planned updates. We hope to post additional updates to allow you to have deeper access to your Fitbit data including, heart rate, blood pressure, and daily goal data.

If you’re using this how-to we’d love to hear from you! Are you learning something new? Making interesting data visualizations? Discussing the data with your health care team? Let us know. You can email us or post here in the comments.


Click to view the interactive version.

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QS | Public Health Symposium: Jason Bobe on Participant Centered Research

As part of the Quantified Self Public Health Symposium, we invited a variety of individuals from the research and academic community. These included visionaries and new investigators in public health, human-computer interaction, and medicine. One of these was Jason Bobe, the Executive Director of the Personal Genome Project. When we think of the intersection of self-tracking and health, it’s harder to find something more definitive and personal than one’s own genetic code. The Personal Genome Project has operated since 2005 as a large scale research project that “bring together genomic, environmental and human trait data.”

We asked Jason to talk about his experience leading a remarkably different research agenda than what is commonly observed in health and medical research. From the outset, the design of the Personal Genome Project was intended to fully involve and respect the autonomy, skills, and knowledge of their participants. This is manifested most clearly one of their defining characteristics, that each participant receives a full copy of their genomic data upon participation. It may be surprising to learn that this is an anomaly in most, if not all, health research. As Jason noted at the symposium, we live in an investigator-centered research environment where participants are called on to give up their data for the greater good. In Jason’s talk below, these truths are exposed, as well as a few example and insights related to how the research community can move towards a more participant-centered design as they begin to address large amounts of personal self-tracking data being gathered around the world.

I found myself returning to this talk recently when the NIH released a new Genomic Data Sharing Policy that will be applied to all NIH-funded research proposals that generate genomic data. I spent the day attempting to read through some of the policy documents and was struck by the lack of mention of participant access to research data. After digging a bit I found the only mention was in the “NIH Points to Consider for IRBs and Institutions“:

[...] the return of individual research results to participants from secondary GWAS is expected to be a rare occurrence. Nevertheless, as in all research, the return of individual research results to participants must be carefully considered because the information can have a psychological impact (e.g., stress and anxiety) and implications for the participant’s health and well-being.

It will not be surprise to learn that the Personal Genome Project submitted public comments during the the comment period. Among these comments was a recommendation to require “researchers to give these participants access to their personal data that is shared with other researchers.” Unfortunately, this recommendation appears not to have been implemented. As Jason mentioned, we still have a long way to go.

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QSEU14 Breakout: Open Privacy

Today’s post comes to us from Laurie Frick. Laurie led a breakout session at the 2014 Quantified Self Europe Conference that opened up a discussion about what it would mean to be able to access all the data being gathered about yourself and then open that up for full transparency. In the summary below, Laurie describes that discussion and her ideas around the idea of living an open and transparent life. If you’re interested in these ideas and what it might mean to live an open and transparent life we invite you to join the conversation on our forum.  


Open Privacy
by Laurie Frick

Fear of surveillance is high, but what if societies with the most openness develop faster culturally, creatively and technically?

Open-privacy turns out to an incredibly loaded term, something closer to data transparency seems to create less consternation. We opened the discussion with the idea, “What if in the future we had access to all the data collected about us, and sharing that data openly was the norm?”

Would that level of transparency gain an advantage for that society or that country? What would it take to get to there? For me personally, I want access to ALL the data gathered about me, and would be willing to share lots of it; especially to enable new apps, new insights, new research, and new ideas.

In our breakout, with an international group of about 21 progressive self-trackers in the Quantified Selfc community, I was curious to hear how this conversation would go. In the US, data privacy always gets hung-up on the paranoia for denial of health-care coverage, and with a heavy EU group all covered with socialized-medicine, would the health issue fall away?

Turns out in our discussion, health coverage was barely mentioned, but paranoia over ‘big-brother’ remained. The shift seemed to focus the fear toward not-to-be-trusted corporations instead of government. The conversation was about 18 against and 3 for transparency. An attorney from Denmark suggested that the only way to manage that amount of personal data was to open everything, and simply enforce penalizing misuse. All the schemes for authorizing use of data one-at-a-time are non-starters.

“Wasn’t it time for fear of privacy to flip?” I asked everyone, and recalled the famous Warren Buffet line “…be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful”. It’s just about to tip the other way, I suggested. Some very progressive scientists like John Wilbanks at the non-profit Sage Bionetworks are activists for open sharing of health data for research. Respected researchers like Dana Boyd, and the smart folks at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard are pushing on this topic, and the Futures Company consultancy writes “it’s time to rebalance the one-sided handshake” and describes the risk of hardening of public attitudes as a result of the imbalance.

Once you start listing the types of personal data that are realistically gathered and known about each of us TODAY, the topic of open transparency gets very tricky.

  • Time online
  • Online clicks, search
  • Physical location, where have you been
  • Money spent on anything, anywhere
  • Credit history
  • Net-worth
  • Do you exercise
  • What you eat
  • Sex partners
  • Bio markers, biometrics
  • Health history
  • DNA
  • School grades/IQ
  • Driving patterns, citations
  • Criminal behavior

For those at the forefront of open privacy and data transparency it’s better to frame it as a social construct rather than a ‘right’. It’s not something that can be legislated, but rather an exchange between people and organizations with agreed upon rules. It’s also not the raw data that’s valuable – but the analysis of patterns of human data.

I’m imagining one country or society will lead the way, and it will be evident that an ecosystem of researchers and apps can innovate given access to pools of cheap data. I don’t expect this research will lessen the value to the big-corporate data gatherers, and companies will continue to invest. A place to start is to have individuals the right to access, download, view, correct and delete data about them. In the meantime I’m sticking with my motto: “Don’t hide, get more”.

If you’re interested in the idea of open privacy, data access, and transparency please  join the conversation on our forum or here in the comments. 

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QSEU14 Breakout: Mapping Data Access

Today’s post comes to us from Dawn Nafus and Robin Barooah. Together they led an amazing breakout session at the 2014 Quantified Self Europe Conference on the topic of understanding and mapping data access. We have a longstanding interest in observing and communicating how data moves in and out of the self-tracking systems we use every day. That interest, and support from partners like Intel and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has helped us start to explore different methods of describing how data flows. We’re grateful to Dawn and Robin for taking this important topic on at the conference, and to all the breakout attendees who contributed their thoughts and ideas. If mapping data access is of interest to you we suggest you join the conversation on the forum or get in touch with us directly.

Mapping Data Access
By Dawn Nafus and Robin Barooah

One of the great pleasures of the QS community is that there is no shortage of smart, engaged self-trackers who have plenty to say. The Mapping Data Access session was no different, but before we can tell you about what actually happened, we need to explain a little about how the session came to being.

Within QS, there has been a longstanding conversation about open data. Self-trackers have not been shy to raise complaints about closed systems! Some conversations take the form of “how can I get a download of my own data?” while other conversations ask us to imagine what could be done with more data interoperability, and clear ownership over one’s own data, so that people (and not just companies) can make use of it. One of the things we noticed about these conversations is that when they start from a notion of openness as a Generally Good Thing, they sometimes become constrained by their own generality. It becomes impossible not to imagine a big pot of data in the sky. It becomes impossible not to wonder about where the one single unifying standard is going to come from that would glue all this data together in a sensible way. If only the world looked something like this…


We don’t have a big pot of data in the sky, and yet data does, more or less, move around one way or another. If you ask where data comes from, the answer is “it depends.” Some data come to us via just a few noise-reducing hops away from the sensors from which they came, while others are shipped around through multiple services, making their provenance more difficult to track. Some points of data access come with terms and conditions attached, and others less so. The system we have looks less like a lot and more like this…


… a heterogeneous system where some things connect, but others don’t. Before the breakout session, QS Labs had already begun a project [1] to map the current system of data access through APIs and data downloads. It was an experiment to see if having a more concrete sense of where data actually comes from could help improve data flows. These maps were drawn from what information was publicly available, and our own sense of the systems that self-trackers are likely to encounter.

Any map has to make choices about what to represent and what to leave out, and this was no different. The more we pursued them, there more it became clear that one map was not going to be able to answer every single question about the data ecosystem, and that the choices about what to keep in, and what to edit out, would have to reflect how people in the community would want to use the map. Hence, the breakout session: what we wanted to know was, what questions did self-trackers and toolmakers have that could be answered with a map of data access points? Given those questions, what kind of a map should it be?

Participants in the breakout session were very clear about the questions they needed answers to. Here are some of the main issues that participants thought a mapping exercise could tackle:

Tool development: If a tool developer is planning to build an app, and that app cannot generate all the data it needs on its own, it is a non-trivial task to find out where to get what kind of data, and whether the frequency of data collection suits the purposes, whether the API is stable enough, etc.. A map can ease this process.

Making good choices as consumers: Many people thought they could use a map to better understand whether the services they currently used cohered with their own sense of ‘fair dealings.’ This took a variety of forms. Some people wanted to know the difference between what a company might be capable of knowing about them versus the data they actually get back from the service. Others wanted a map that would explicitly highlight where companies were charging for data export, or the differences between what you can get as a developer working through an API and what you can get as an end user downloading his or her own data. Others still would have the map clustered around which services are easy/difficult to get data out of at all, for the reason that (to paraphrase one participant) “you don’t want to end up in a data roach motel. People often don’t know beforehand whether they can export their own data, or even that that’s something they should care about, and then they commit to a service. Then they find they need the export function, but can’t leave.” People also wanted the ability to see clearly the business relationships in the ecosystem so they could identify the opposite of the ‘roach motel’—“I want a list of all the third party apps that rely on a particular data source, because I want to see the range of possible places it could go.”

Locating where data is processed: Many participants care deeply about the quality of the data they rely on, and need a way of interpreting the kinds of signals they are actually getting. What does the data look like when it comes off the sensor, as opposed to what you see on the service’s dashboard, as opposed to what you see when you access it through an API or export feature? Some participants have had frustrating conversations with companies about what data could fairly be treated as ‘raw’ versus where the company had cleaned it, filtered it, or even created its own metric that they found difficult to interpret without knowing what, exactly, goes into it. While some participants did indeed want a universally-applicable ‘quality assessment,’ as conveners, we would point out that ‘quality’ is never absolute—noisy data at a high sample rate can be more useful for some purposes than, say, less noisy but infrequently collected data. We interpreted the discussion to be, at minimum, a call for greater transparency in how data is processed, so that self-trackers can have a basis on which to draw their own conclusions about what it means.

Supporting policymaking: Some participants had a sense that maps which highlighted the legal terms of data access, including the privacy policies of service use, could support the analysis of how the technology industry is handling digital rights in practice, and that such an analysis could have public policy implications. Sometimes this idea didn’t take the form of a map, but rather a chart that would make the various features of the terms of service comparable. The list mentioned earlier of which devices and services rely on which other services was important not just to be able to assess the extent of data portability, but also to assess what systems represent more risk of data leaking from one company to another without the person’s knowledge or consent. As part of the breakout, the group drew their own maps—maps that either they would like to exist in the world even if they didn’t have all the details, or maps of what they thought happened to their own data. One person, who drew a map of where she thought her own data goes, commented (again, a paraphrase) “All I found on this map was question marks, as I tried to imagine how data moves from one place to the next. And each of those question marks appeared to me to be an opportunity for surveillance.”

What next for mapping?

If you are a participant, and you drew a map, it would help continue the discussion if you talked a little more about what you drew on the breakout forum page. If you would like to get involved in the effort, please do chime in on the forum, too.

Clearly, these ecosystems are liable to change more rapidly than they can be mapped. But given the decentralized nature of the current system (which many of us see as a good thing) we left the breakout with the sense that some significant social and commercial challenges could in fact be solved with a better sense of the contours and tendencies of the data ecosystem as it works in practice.

[1] This work was supported by Intel Labs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. One of us (Dawn) was involved in organizing support for this work, and the other (Robin) worked on the project. We are biased accordingly.

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