5 Major Takeaways from the Quantified Self Conference in Amsterdam

by: Mark Moschel

I want to begin at the end: “Imagine you are lying on your deathbed. Life is almost over.”

This is the request that was made at the closing talk of the Quantified Self conference in Amsterdam earlier this month. The room was silent. Everyone’s thoughts were diligently projecting into the future and reflecting on the past.

“What do you remember? What do you regret?”

Here we were, 350 self-trackers who came together based on a passion for hard, quantitative metrics—and we were reflecting on the soft, qualitative emotions that will inevitably accompany our end.

Many of us have done this exercise before. Common regrets always surface: we wish we followed our dreams, stood up for ourselves, spent more time with friends and family. We tend to remember the important people in our lives and the special moments we shared. “Capture these moments”, we’re told. “Make more of them.”

It was a humbling close to a conference that, like life, ended too quickly. The conference was, by all accounts, exceptional. The people were warm and intelligent, the projects inspiring, and the discussions insightful. And yet I left unsettled, like walking away from a conversation that never finished. I arrived with questions and was eager to be endowed with knowledge and insight. Instead, as we sought those answers, deeper questions emerged.

As I left that final session, I reflected on the conference. Here are the five things I remember most:

1.) What is Quantified Self?

“I see [Quantified Self] more like a movement of digestion” – Gary Wolf

In classic Quantified Self form, the community self-reflected on its own meaning. Because of its participatory nature, fast growth (doubling every year), and social impact, many have called it a movement. As Gary joked in the above quote, he prefers to think of it as a movement of digestion: data from multiple sources is consumed, insights and meaning are absorbed, and the rest is discarded.

It was interesting—and surprising—to see so many different definitions stem from a term I thought I understood. To the QS Labs team, it is still entirely about the individual. It is self-meaning from self-tracking. Others were there representing the healthcare industry, the biohacking community, citizen scientists, digital entertainment—as well as plenty of academics interested in the research component. To some, it was about looking in, and to others, looking out. There were quantitative minds and qualitative minds. There were people tracking hundreds of variables, and people tracking none.

Quantified Self is rooted in the belief that personal data leads to personal insights. However, the implications of this self-tracking are extending to many industries. How will it impact your business in the near future? What will Quantified Self mean to you?

Key takeaway: New industries, including yours, are beginning to explore the implications of Quantified Self.

2.) Quantified Self & Healthcare

“Health is not created in healthcare” – Sara Riggare

In one of the more touching talks of the weekend, Sara Riggare spoke about her battle with Parkinson’s disease. During her treatment, she realized she spends just one hour with her neurologist for every 8,765 hours in self-care. Treatment isn’t occurring in the healthcare system; most of it is occurring on its own!

The measurements we need our doctors for today will soon be commercially accessible. New technology is providing us with an opportunity to manage our own health. As entrepreneurs, we should welcome this responsibility.

From a market perspective, the intersection of healthcare and self-tracking is growing rapidly. As Nike, Apple, Google, and others get involved, the scene will continue to grow. With crowdfunding making it easier than ever to fund these projects, there is a great opportunity to enter this space.

Takeaway: We have an amazing opportunity to start managing our own health, and to create new tools to help others better manage theirs.

Additional Resources: Here is a crowdfunding example currently on Kickstarter.

3.) “Little Brother” and the data privacy concerns

One attendee tracked her diabetes, but not as regularly as an insurance company would prefer. If this data were open, would she be penalized?

As more personal data is collected, ethical questions arise. Information that is near and personal—about our health, relationships, and emotions—is now available to more and more people. Are we comfortable with large corporations mining that data to serve us ads, or insurance companies to adjust our premiums, or our employers to monitor our health?

As the conversation shifted to life-logging with tools like Memoto and Google Glass, many people became wary of the “little brother.” We will soon be more concerned with the pictures and videos we take of each other than the watchful eye of a large entity.

This conversation had many questions and no clear answers. Soon, these issues will impact your life. Be aware of them now and consider joining the conversations.

Takeaway: Privacy is a sensitive issue and one that we, as entrepreneurs, need to address carefully.

Additional Resources: Here’s an interesting interview with AJ Jacobs about “Little Brother.”

4.) Open data, data aggregation, and APIs

“God didn’t make steps. What is a step anyway?” – Gary Wolf

One of the more humorous moments occurred when Gary Wolf challenged the very definition of a step. With the abundance of activity trackers on the market—Fitbit, Jawbone, Bodymedia, Omron, Nike+, Moves, etc.—there is a growing need to aggregate data. And yet, each company uses its own proprietary algorithm to calculate something as basic as a “step.” We are left with as many different “steps” as there are companies.

With such variance, and without open access to the raw, unprocessed data, combining multiple datasets is a challenge. Conference attendees called for a standard in open data practices and more consistent APIs.

On an individual level, open data means we can own our data and digest it as we want. On a larger scale, the allure of open data is the knowledge that might be extracted when it is all brought together and analyzed.

Takeaway: Making data open and combining it from multiple sources is a challenge, but also presents opportunities.

Additional Resources: Join the open data discussion at Open mHealth.

If you are looking to combine data from multiple services, consider integration platforms like Singly.

5.) The “Uncurated Self”

“I’ve learned that every day, the accumulation of mostly meaningless, uncurated life feels a tiny bit more beautiful.” – Buster Benson

For the last 5 years, Buster Benson has taken a picture every day at 8:36pm regardless of what he is doing. Sometimes that picture is fun: a dinner, his son, or a new location. Often, it is boring: a computer screen, television, or even just his feet as he reclines on the couch.

He realized that we often go through life with filters. We are biased toward the highlights, the new, the shocking, and the information that validates our current worldview. Each day, we share a story of ourselves that is true, but distorted.

To him, the Quantified Self is as much about self-awareness as it is about data. It empowers us to be conscious of our filters, and to open them to the real, honest, and often boring moments that define our lives.

As Buster learned, “I can conjure up my death bed at every 8:36pm, and feel my future self thanking me for not taking these uncurated moments for granted.”

Takeaway: Be aware of the smaller moments that define our lives, and be aware of the choice to think differently about them.

Additional Resources: This commencement speech by David Foster Wallace speaks more to this idea of everyday awareness.

For two simple life-logging tools, check out Lifeslice and Memoto.

For more advice from Buster Benson, read his medium posts and blog.

About the author Mark Moschel @MarkMoschel
Mark Moschel is a software engineer with Big Astronaut, a product development studio that helps startups launch big ideas. Factor 75 is his main client, and his main source of meals. He also does development for the Bulletproof Executive, leads the Chicago Quantified Self and Chicago Biohacking meetup communities, and still needs to get a virtual assistant.

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