The Quantified Self


There is a view that the Internet, through the smartphone has finally connected the world. It follows that people are connected. The mobile moment is defined as that point when the number of devices is equal to the number of people in the world. Indeed Facebook’s Zuckerberg claimed the 6 degrees of separation, that separates every human being, has through social media (SM), been reduced to 3.5. Moreover, people are anecdotally reporting positive experiences with SM technology to remain connected to family. On the other hand, some folk bemoan the disconnection of the nuclear family.

It is serendipitous that WhatsApp with 1.3 billion active and Facebook with 2.7 billion active users has more users than the population of either China or India. With the progress in technology it is logical that the connected world has at some point becomes introspective. The within. The notion of continual self-monitoring is the holy grail of medical and health practitioners. Until recently our brilliant GP typically had just one visit, with its associated sparse data point to make a prognosis on your health. With modern wearable technology she potentially has a whole data range for more accurate prognosis.

Medical monitoring of patients evolved from ICU primarily as a critical life prevention mechanism. This progressed to unwieldly portable, more like luggable, monitoring devices. The miniaturisation of these devices led to wearable technologies whose continual monitoring capabilities allows for discrete time-based or interval-based monitoring which help data analysts such as doctors to reveal deviations or anomalies.

We live in a measured and measuring society. We measure by time, distance, location, event, and other variables.  Each of these measurements take place in a different context and evokes different meaning within those contexts. This measurement occurs once in a while, or continuously. We may measure others, or  oneself. So it comes as no surprise that the notion of self-measurement has evolved which morphed into a term you will begin to see much more often  “the quantified-self”.  Some folks also use the term self-logging or life-logging. 

Wearable technology or devices are smart electronic devices that can be worn on the body as implants or accessories. Wearable devices such as activity trackers use a combination of sensors, gyroscopes, location detectors to make increasingly educated guesses about the health and current activity of an individual. Examples of wearables products include Fitbit, TomTom and Garmin. The pervasiveness of the smartphone together with wearable technologies, as a tuple combination,  has been the game changer primarily because these devices automatically synchronise data which is then stored in the cloud. One can now build a long period of data about one’s health which can really support the medical practitioner make accurate diagnoses of an existing condition or even pre-empt a looming one.

I use Fitbit to collect the number of steps I walk each day with a goal of 10,000 per day. It really does motivate me and I feel despair when I miss my target. Sometimes I just wish I could tie my FitBit to my hyperactive Jack Russel so I can reach my daily milestone!

The real-time monitoring of individual’s vital signs and activities has provided to opportunity not just to the individual but also to the business sector. Discovery uses telemetry systems to monitor the behaviour of their insured vehicle owners. Good legal driving behaviour is rewarded by a discount in monthly payments.  Why would Discovery do this? It’s simple economics that the more complaint the drivers, the lower the claims pay-out and the associated cost of honouring these claims.

This is superficially a great idea. But the essence is that you have exchanged your privacy in exchange for a discount, albeit a significant one. Would you be happy if your health or activity data, collected over months or years is used against you, sold to an employment agency? What if a competitor hacks your data and changes the data to make you look bad? A competitor may discover information about you through this data and share this information as malicious gossip. This is a real risk. If politicians can kill each other, why not destroy a potential competitor digitally? I doubt one will get a life sentence for this unethical behaviour, even though the consequences to the victim is horrendous.

Consider you applied for a job, and the potential employer gains access to such data and discovers that you are hypertensive. They may well decide that you are a health risk and not even interview you? We could harvest information to deny a colleague promotion.  While ethical companies like Discovery will do no such thing, can we make similar assumptions about new start-ups?

A drive-by download is where a hacker gets sufficiently close to you to download you information from your smartphone.  A drive-by download of your activity history is now possible if you do not set your wearable security securely? Ransomware is the extreme consequence of such activities where not only do hacker gain access to your system, they also lock your machine with a time-bomb until you pay the unlock fee. This time-bomb is literal and a descending time clock displays towards zero to force you to pay. Several colleagues have already paid and small amounts to retrieve their systems.

The advantages of wearable technology is that is reinforces good behaviour through the Hawthorne Effect. This Hawthorne Effect recognises that when people are conscious of being observed they generally behave much better. The wearable system may raise an alert when you are unable to talk for yourself for example when you become disabled in an accident.

The disadvantages of monitoring systems are that a claim may be repudiated through data collected, privacy invasion, the possibility of personal liability, location tracking, the illicit tracking of competitor information in sports or at work.

Joe Cocker’s raunchy ballad “Leave your hat on” requires serious updating. Surely one must now leave our wearables on! Even more urgently, the law has a huge role to help prevent abuse of this data. As always, great technology, must be exploited.  This however introduces new, sometimes unexpected, risks which must be carefully assessed and mediated.

Dr Colin Thakur is a digital activist who is committed to the dream of “one person, one connected device.” He is the KZN e-Skills CoLab Director, located at the Durban University of Technology. His areas of research include e-democracy, Social media, and unstructured big data.