Quantified Selfing, My Ass

Not only are these apps not telling me anything interesting about myself, they’re not really telling me anything at all.

Illustration done in Paper by Tracy Rolling

I’m not the activity-tracking type. I went for about a decade without weighing myself. I exercise enough. Bike to work, long walks (while drinking beers because I live in Europe and we can do that here), and some semi-regular yoga, pilates, or yogalates. I eat whatever the hell I want, whenever I want.

Before acquiring my Apple Watch about 6 weeks ago, I was using some apps in the quantified selfing category. (God, what a barbaric-sounding term. Who comes up with this crap?) I’ve used Moves for a long time, because I can’t remember the name of the great restaurant I ate at last week, but Moves can. The biking and step-counting features were fun to see, but the real utility for me was remembering places I’d been to. I also collect places on the HERE Maps app, especially when I go on vacation, so I can tell people where I went and what was worth seeing, drinking, or eating. I had my genome sequenced by 23 and Me because I’m a closet amateur biologist. Finally, like many women, I used Period Tracker to help me not get pregnant.

The Apple Watch roused some curiosity in me about what all this data collecting and tracking might be about. I even bought a Xiomi Miband for sleep tracking. At 20€, it’s a low-risk investment. I started using Strava on my watch to record my bike ride to and from work. I hooked all the apps I could into the Apple Health app and then sat back in stunned amazement at the uselessness of it all. Is this really what people are getting all het up about?

Apple Watch is in the process of validating the smart watch as a device form factor. Five years from now, it will be pretty normal for a non-techy to have one on her wrist. If app developers and companies can figure out how to build useful activity and health tracking for people like me who are not trying to lose weight, not training for the triathalon, and are generally pretty healthy, they will be tapping a vast untouched market. Apple seems to already be asking, “What do the normals want to know about themselves?” The Apple commercial that focuses on activity tracking not only shows people jogging, it shows people pushing a car to get it started, unlocking a bike in front of a school, and pushing a boyfriend on a playground swing. They’re trying to tell us that this activity tracking stuff isn’t just for sick people, neurotics, dieters, and jocks.

I’ve so far identified five major problems with the activity tracking that I’ve been toying with over the past six weeks. The first three of these issues all sit more or less under the heading “These Data Visualizations Suck.” First off, they are ugly, boring, and barely interactive (Xiomi MiFit) or not interactive at all (Apple Health). Putting the data into a graph or pie chart doesn’t actually tell me anything. The Xiomi app shows me my sleep pattern, but I have no idea what it means. What does a “good” sleep pattern look like? The Apple Health app shows me my weight, but it doesn’t even bother to tell me if I am in a healthy zone for people of my age and height.

Not only are the apps failing to tell me what my data means or how it compares to healthy norms or averages, the apps also fail to make any correlations between different data sets. I know that correlation is not causation, but I bet I could have some fun laying my sleep data over my step data to see if there’s anything to discover about correlations of steps walked and sleep quality.

Not only are these apps not telling me anything interesting about myself, they’re not really telling me anything at all.

There’s no way for a person to easily ask these apps a question and get an answer back. Does the hour at which I go to bed make a difference in my quality of sleep? Does the time and contents of my evening meal change my sleep pattern significantly? Is my PMS less awful if I exercise more?

Which leads me to another thing I find kind of shocking, though sadly not surprising. None of the basic health or activity apps have menstrual-cycle tracking as a basic feature. You have to get a special app just for that and Apple Health doesn’t have a way to hook into my period-tracking app. It’s probably got a lot to do with the very low numbers of women working in R&D in technology companies, but half of the population is managing this menstruation business and for most of those people it’s a big part of our general health and well-being. It should be standard issue in a health-tracking solution.

I haven’t gotten too deep into the more sophisticated tracking apps that I would have to look for and research. Maybe I never will. I’d be a lot more likely to get interested, though, if this first taste was a bit sweeter. If I could lay data sets from different apps on top of each other just to see what the curves look like, I’d find it fun. If the app could help me record data that might answer a real question I have about my lifestyle and health, I’d find it useful. If I could get some kind of data horoscope from the app using correlations and pattern recognition over time, I would be hooked.