Tag Archives: stories

QSEU14 Breakout Session: Telling Stories With Data

Today’s post comes to us from Kitty Ireland, who co-led the Telling Stories With Data breakout session at the 2014 Quantified Self Europe Conference. You’re invited to read her description of the session and then join the discussion on the QS Forum. You can also view and download their session presentation here.


Telling Stories With Data 

by Kitty Ireland

One theme at this year’s QS Europe conference was how we connect the practices and calculations of the Quantified Self to the emotional side of the human experience. Adrienne Andrew Slaughter and I hosted a breakout discussion on telling stories with data. The conversation evolved from how we tease out stories from personal data to why we do so. What makes a story interesting?  Many of the stories we can tell with data don’t really tell us much of anything new. Sometimes it takes some exploration to draw out something revelatory. And in fact sometimes there may not be anything revelatory at all, but there’s always a story.

In the case of QS, the story is often character-driven, meaning the narrative follows some kind of personal transformation. On the other hand, when you start to look at data in aggregate (either multiple data types from an individual, or data from multiple individuals) a plot-driven narrative is more likely to emerge. You begin to see correlations, themes, and distinct plot points.

Last year, I went through an exercise with my grandmother’s diary from 1942 to see if the story in the “data” of the diary reflected her emotional truth. Diaries are by nature messy collections of data. They are inconsistent and incomplete, and in the case of my grandmother’s, nearly illegible. In order to pull out a data set, I had to look at what she tracked most consistently. This turned out to be her relationships with boys.

Counting mentions of boys’ names allowed me to create a data visualization of my grandmother’s relationships over the course of 1942. This gave me a better understanding of her emotional connections. Each boy followed a similar pattern — a steep peak followed by a slow fade — until she fell in love with Zip in August. He blew the other boys out of the water, and his numbers kept rising even after he went off to war.

Adrienne extracted her location data from Saga and created a visualization of her past 12 months. She explained how Saga adds contextual layers on top of the raw location traces, including named places, categories of places, whether this place is home or a  workplace, and how much time you’ve spent there. With this extra data it is easy to see Adrienne’s typical routine, and breaks from routine appear as visual anomalies. Seasonal changes show up as subtle shifts — such as earlier commute times during the school year — which become more obvious when she extracts her daily departure time.

One question that came up is whether this kind of day-to-day routine data makes an interesting story, or are only the anomalies worth exploring? It really depends on what question you’re trying to answer, and sometimes you have to look at the data from a few angles to dig up the right question.

In looking at my grandmother’s diary, the daily details of her life give context to the wartime story of love and loss that emerges. To understand Adrienne’s story, it helps to visualize her routine to understand what plot points cause breaks in routine. In order to build a more complete story, we look for patterns and also deviations from those patterns.

Ultimately, telling stories is how we connect to each other, learn from each other, and transmit our culture. As the tsunami of personal data continues to expand, we need the right tools to understand what stories the data tells. Our data can be a rich repository of stories for ourselves, our descendants, and the archives of human history, if we can extract and preserve meaning.

If you’re interested in joining the discussion about how we can tell better stories about our lives with and through data make sure to join the discussion on the forum!



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Numbers from Around the Web: The Simple, Wonderful Art of Tracking

This is a special NFTAW post on a  project we think is full of insight and beauty.

For those of you that were lucky enough to attend the first European Quantified Self conference this past November in Amsterdam you know how inspiring our good friend Laurie Frick can be. Laurie is a visual artist who meticulously and beautifully morphs her own self tracking data into wonderful pieces of art. Personally I find her large scale mood wall installations to be just jaw-dropping.

Phenomenal in her own right, imagine how surprised we were when Laurie emailed us earlier this week to tell us about an amazing story of a school teacher bringing self-tracking and visualization into her classroom. I’ll let Abigail Soto, an art teacher at De Valle High School in Austin Texas, tell you what happened in her own words:

24 hours in the life of a Del Valle student.

On February 1st, 2012 I attended the energetic and interesting gallery talk of Laurie Frick at Women & Their Work in Austin. She counted and tracked her everyday life and inspired me to have my high school student track their lives. My high school is very high poverty and my students have very little opportunity to see art and art galleries. My students love hearing stories about artists and galleries and I couldn’t wait to share my experience from the gallery talk.

On February 2nd I came to school and changed my lesson plan to include the students tracking their lives. I gave the students 24 rectangles in a line on a pre-printed sheet. I simply told them to track their previous 24 hours. One rectangle equaled one hour. The students collectively created a unified key with teenage issues. Blue signified sleep, red for school, pink for makeup, green for cell phone use etc… I did not give them any more requirements. My literal students started at a specific time and chronologically recorded their day while other students recreated their day in a more abstract manor.

The students really had to think about the length of their activities and many were shocked to find out how they spent their time. Students generated many great questions about the project and the artist. Conversations began about the amount of texting in the thousands and how much time is consumed with electronics. A great idea would be to illustrate and calculate the amount of text messages that are sent and received by each student. Some students text over 1000 times per day. Teacher and homework time can hardly compete with cell phones, television, and video games. Just by evaluating their actions they were able to visually see where they placed importance and how they should choose their time wisely.

Once each student completed their color chart they were placed in the hallway for the entire school to see. The key was placed to the side of the color charts and students walking down the hall stopped to figure out what the colors meant. The curiosity grew and non-art students were walking in my classroom asking if they could record their day. The overall experience has been very interesting. I have never been exposed to tracking and have never included tracking in an art lesson. I would like to take this lesson a step farther and do a complete lesson and art installation with my high school students. I think the possibilities are endless. Thank you Laurie Frick for expanding the possibilities in my classroom.

I think that there are a lot of lessons here that we as a community of users and makers can take away. Sometimes we get caught up in the gadgets and new technologies that we associated with real objective data collection. While those tools and web services are fun and provide us with new insights into our lives we mustn’t forget that the tools doesn’t make the tracking happen, it just makes it easier. I was asked at a conference this past week, “All those gadgets are nice, but what about the people who can’t afford them? What do you say to those people?” I think that implementing projects such as the one illustrated by Abigail Soto here is a way to bring people from all walks of life into a practice of self-tracking. Amazing insights can happen with a piece of paper, some lines, and a few colored markers. As an aside, during this same conference I met a woman whose 83 year old mother has been meticulously tracking her blood pressure and blood glucose, not with a fancy smartphone of wifi enabled device, but with good old pen and paper.

The second major lesson I took away from this project is that Quantified Self is a community in the truest sense of the world. We (and if you’re reading this that “we” includes you too) work hard to make sure that anyone and everyone feels that they can take part. Whether it is at a meetup, at a large conference, or in one-on-one discussions there is an amazing current of inclusivity, of togetherness, of intimate and abundant sharing. I’ve never once heard someone pipe up and say, “That’s not self-tracking.” As I read Abigail’s description and looked through those beautiful pieces of data visualization it made me proud that she and her students could feel included in this wonderful movement we are all a part of.

We’ll be highlighting more art projects and self-tracking experiments in future NFATW posts so please feel free to drop me a line and share your story or point out someone’s you’ve seen or read about. Our strength lies in our courage to share with each other.

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Open Invitation to Share Your Apps, Stories, Thoughts

The power of the Quantified Self community is in the individual stories of self-tracking and self-experimentation that QS’ers around the world are sharing with each other. With this post, I want to invite you, if you haven’t already, to share your story – what did you do? How did you do it? What did you learn?

Here are the ways that you can tell the QS world about your insights, ideas, questions, and apps:

1. The Complete QS Guide to Self-Tracking – this is a tagged directory of 478 tools and apps relevant to QS. Feel free to comment on any tool to share your story with it, or even submit your own app to the guide.

2. Quantified Self Forums – this is a place to chat with 260 other QS’ers about 16 topics, from cognition to mood to medical tests to startups. Ask questions and get advice on your current experiments.

3. Global QS meetups – come on out to one of the 33 QS Show&Tell meetup groups around the world and meet other folks like you. Some meetups record the talks on video to post to the main QS blog. You are also welcome to start your own group.

4. Quantified Self Blog – we always welcome guest posts on personal projects, and these are often our most popular posts. For example, Robin Barooah’s experiment with caffeine and productivity, or Seth Roberts’ experiment with one-legged standing and sleep. If you’d like to share your story with our readers here, please send it in to me at labs@quantifiedself.com.

5. Quantified Self Conference – our next conference is coming up November 26-27 in Amsterdam. All attendees have the opportunity to present their projects, or just come and listen and connect. You are most welcome to join us!

At QS we love to listen, so now I’m passing the microphone to you…

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