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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- Data Ownership
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:
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.
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.
Pros: Track anything, personal dashboards, mobile & web access, great analysis tools.
Cons: Blog hasn’t been updated since 2010. Site appears abandoned.
What features are you looking for in a self-tracking application? Do you have any recommendations for me?