In Search of a Universal Self-Tracking App

I’m a data geek and a personal improvement fanatic.

I want to improve my personal habits, skills and behaviors. I strive to be healthy, happy and productive.

And, for the most part, I am.

One way I achieve this is by tracking my life. Self-tracking for me has two benefits:

  1. Increased Awareness
    The simple act of tracking makes me self-aware and helps me to change my behaviors. Tracking calories helps me lose weight, even when I don’t consciously change my diet. Wearing my FitBit causes me to exercise more, even though I rarely look at the data afterwards.
  2. Actionable Data 
    Memory can be unreliable. Not only do we forget details, we alter them as new experiences change our perception of old ones. Confirmation bias can make us conveniently forget details that don’t support the conclusion we want. Tracking information gives me a more objective view, helping me to make better decisions.

Today I track data in Excel spreadsheets. While versatile, they lack a couple key features:

  • Mobile Access
    I’m not always near my computer when I want to track, and often forget to record an item when I get back to my desk. I need a mobile app that allows me to enter data quickly and easily. Visualizations of my data that help me analyze my data and take actions would also be nice.
  • Sharing
    Sometimes I want to share my data with others. Certainly I want my doctor to have access to my health data, and when I get a personal trainer again, I want them to have access to my exercise data.
  • Attachments
    In some cases, a picture works  so much better than a number or text. Recordings could be useful too. I’ve been using SnoreLab to track and reduce my snoring, which records samples throughout the night so I can listen exactly how I snore (no sleep apnea here, thankfully!).

With the rise of personal informatics and the quantified self movement, you’d think there would be dozens of apps and web sites out there that are ideal for self-tracking. Unfortunately, too many have been shuttered. And the ones that remain, I’ve found so far lacking in one aspect or another.

So what am I looking for in my ideal universal quantified self app?

  1. Track Any Data
    My biggest requirement: don’t limit me. Tons of apps out there only let you track a subset of metrics: weight, food consumption, mood, exercise. I want to track everything in a single place. TicTrac almost gets this right, with dozens of trackers for everything from weight to how much e-mail you get. But TicTrac doesn’t allow custom trackers.  So you can only track what they want you to track, not what you want to track.
  2. Mobile & Web Access
    Any tracking app has to let me enter data either via a phone or the web. I need mobile access to track stuff when I’m not near my computer. I need web access because it’s easier to do data entry and analysis on a full-size keyboard & monitor. Both should be fast and reliable.
  3. Data Export
    Exporting data serves two purposes. It allows me to analyze my data in ways the tracking app doesn’t support (such as moving averages) and allows me to backup my data in case the app stops being supported.
  4. Contextual Factors
    Not all measurements are equally valid. Body fat depends on your level of hydration. Weight can vary based on salt intake (or, for women, menstrual cycles). Being able to add context to data being entered allows a more nuanced analysis later. Tagging measurements based on these confounding factors allows you to filter out potentially bad data, or see underlying causes. SnoreLab gets this right; it lets you record both special factors and remedies being used, then provides charts on which factors contributed to more or less snoring.
  5. Linked Accounts
    I only own a few Internet connected devices, like my FitBit. But connecting the data from these devices into any tracking app could help me find correlations. Does my activity level affect my mood? If I’m tracking my mood in an app and it can import my FitBit data, then that analysis becomes so much easier. Exporting data takes priority over this, however, since with data export I can always do my own analysis.
  6. Sharing
    Can I share my data with others? While not critical, it’d be nice to share my data with a doctor, personal trainer or friend. Permissions that would allow me to share a single metric or only aggregate data would be useful.
  7. Attachments
    Photos can tell stories that words simply can’t. Mostly I don’t use photos, but when I do need them, I feel the lack of any good way to integrate them into my tracking. Other files may be useful too: PDFs of  lab tests or audio recordings.
  8. Data Ownership
    My data should be mine. For most sites this is true. The Carrot has clauses in their Terms of Use that seem to indicate they own the copyright in anything I submit (though the language is far from clear). This alone makes me recommend against using The Carrot (they also have different Terms of Use in their text box versus the link they provide, which is negligent at best and deceptive at worst).

It doesn’t feel like I’m asking for much, but I haven’t yet found a site that meets my needs. A few of the apps and sites I’ve looked at include:

  • TicTrac
    Pros: Tons of trackers, analysis tools, linked accounts, mobile & web access, allows sharing.
    Cons: No custom trackers, no contextual factors.
  • The Carrot
    Pros: Tons of trackers, linked accounts, mobile & web access.
    Cons: No custom trackers, no contextual factors.
  • Daytum
    Pros: Track anything, personal dashboards, mobile & web access.
    Cons: Mobile app reviews says it crashes often, hasn’t been updated since 2010. Developers left to join Facebook, then development stopped.
  • TallyZoo
    Pros:  Track anything, personal dashboards, mobile & web access, great analysis tools.
    Cons: Blog hasn’t been updated since 2010. Site appears abandoned.

Though there are dozens more. If you’re interested, check out the tools listings at Quantified Self and Personal Informatics (check out the ”anything” tag for universal tracking tools).

What features are you looking for in a self-tracking application? Do you have any recommendations for me?

9 comments

  1. Florian Schumacher says:

    Have you found anything that works? I’ve been using an app called “track and share” for a while. Pretty customizable trackers but usability could be better.

    1. trevor says:

      The best I’ve found is i.strive.to.

      It matches almost all my criteria. Unfortunately, it’s buggy and has a confusing user interface. Though it has apps on iPhone and Android, as well as a web site, with full tracker customization.

      1. Nick says:

        Hey trevor, It’s Nick from i.strive.to

        I’d love to hear your suggestion on improving the user interface.

        If you want to reach out I’m, nick at strive.to

  2. Ronni Pedersen says:

    I’ve been using Daytum to this day, but yes it’s very buggy and hasn’t been updated for a long time. Now I’m looking at Tictrack, but I can’t seem to find the mobile app in Appstore. And I really need a native app for tracking.

    Have you found a good solution to your needs during these past 18 months? Or have you any idea if the Tictrac app has been taken down?

    1. trevor says:

      No, I haven’t found a good solution yet. The closest I’ve found is i.strive.to. The interface is clunky, but it seems to be extremely powerful.

      The Carrot has since closed and TallyZoo seems to be gone too.

      I have the old Tictrac app on my iPhone, but I can’t find it in the App Store either. They do have a mobile site that isn’t too bad. Not sure why the app was pulled.

      Right now I’m back to tracking in Excel. I’ve downloaded Temple, but haven’t had time to set it up.

      If you want to do 24/7 time tracking, I highly recommend Eternity Time Log. I’ve been using it for almost a year now, and it’s great for helping me identify where I’m spending my time.

      Trevor

  3. Shan says:

    This is good info. Would you consider doing an updated review for 2015?

    My data is sadly in a bunch of different apps and Excel spreadsheets and paper notebooks. It would be great to have a place to consolidate heart rate, running pace, body measurements, blood donations, blood pressure, etc., and then draw some conclusions about improved eating & training.

    1. trevor says:

      Unfortunately, I haven’t had time lately to find new apps. I’m back to tracking most things in Excel, plus a few apps.

      I use Eternity Time Log for 24/7 time-tracking and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

      I’ve been meaning to look into the Temple iOS app, but haven’t yet.

      For running, I was using Map My Run until I got a Wahoo Bluetooth heart rate monitor for Christmas. The Wahoo Fitness app does free heart rate monitoring and I like the interface much better than Map My Run, which has gotten too cluttered over the years.

      For daily habit tracking, I’m using the Don’t Break the Chain web app. I don’t use it on my phone, and it only has a few features, but it meets my needs.

      I’d love to have a tool I can import everything into and do some actual analysis. Except for time tracking, I’m not analyzing any of my data right now due to lack of time (ironically enough).

      What apps are you using?

  4. Cougar Brenneman says:

    I’ve tried tracking with electronics, and they all have on bad thing in common–you have to turn them on. The fastest way to track things is a pad of paper, which is instantly on.

    In addition, I track creatively, which means that I can decide in the middle of the day that I want to count something related but different. So I make the change instantly, and I don’t have to set up a new column on a graph or anything.

    Later, I put the info onto a Google Drive graph, but that’s a lot less effort than having to turn on an electronic device multiple times. I say, the best tool for the job is not always tech. Using tech for tracking is like using it to trim your nails. Not this year.

    1. trevor says:

      I use both paper and electronics. Sometimes its far quicker to write than to use a phone keyboard. But I find I rarely get around to entering my paper tracking in.

      Both my phone and my laptop are on constantly, so the friction on turning them on is less. I tend to use my phone for things that require little to no typing, or that I want to use while away from the house.

      But each person has their own preferred methods of tracking, which also tend to change over time. I know mine have. Glad yours work for you.

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