Log all the things!

19-May-2014

Balloon"Life logging" - the shameful secret of many a data nerd. Try telling people that you've kept a spreadsheet of your weight and exercise habits for the past 5 years, or that you track the number of minutes you spend standing each day - some folks break into an enthusiastic grin, nodding in approval, others recoil in horror, staring at you with a look of disgust and pity.

I can see both sides of the argument. There's something terribly indulgent and narcissistic about spending so much time thinking about oneself, recording the minutia of day-to-day life, navel gazing over such apparently trivial things. And beyond the incessant tracking, logging and journaling, one might wonder: what's the point of all that data? Does it really tell us anything about ourselves? Does it help shape, change, improve our lives?

But on the other hand...

I LOVE data, and it's my natural state to log and record things, day in, day out. It's no surprise that I have pursued a career where such a mindset is beneficial - indeed, downright essential at times. And I'm in esteemed company - history is littered with the great and the good who shared a propensity for keeping lists, diaries, painstaking journals of facts and figures.

I kept a regular journal/diary fairly consistently through my younger years, and recently I've felt the urge again - but no longer for adolescent ramblings - no, lately I've been getting excited by the idea of capturing data in a more structured form, something that can be sorted, queried, analysed - the Quantified Self.

In the world of consumer electronics the current trend is to target low-effort automatic logging, seen by the proliferation of wearable fitness trackers on the market. These log physical activity and provide an incentive to improve lifestyles and get people moving. No bad thing. But I'm interested in something a little more personal, something that bridges the gap between automatic tracking and a traditional journal.

I already track my health/fitness behaviour in a structured way - keeping tabs on how much (or how little) exercise I've done shames me into maintaining good habits! As they say, you can't manage what you don't measure. And I enjoy the challenge of trying to improve on previous "personal bests", and feel a little annoyed if a lazy week has pulled down my averages.

But what I would like to do is take this a step further, and log all sorts of activities in the same place - both the interesting and the mundane. How much TV am I watching? How many hours a week do I work? Who am I spending time with, and where? All of which begs the obvious question - why?

Well, I once used nothing but my Google Calendar history to calculate a years worth of travel data - distance, transportation method, duration, cost. If you consider that that's the sort of thing I do for fun, it shouldn't be a big surprise that a structured database of activity data would provide me limitless entertainment :o)

From a more "worthy" perspective, it should help motivate good habits. I've already explained above that logging my exercise activity encourages me to work a little harder than if I wasn't tracking - I hope that logging other activity might do the same. Am I watching too much TV? Not spending enough time pursuing hobbies and personal projects? Too many hours at my desk? I already have a hunch as to the answers, but seeing the cold data provides the impetus someone like me needs to make a change.

I also have a more practical goal - I intend using this project as a springboard to try out a few new technologies I've been meaning to look at. I could just log everything using an off-the-shelf solution of some kind (Reporter on the iPhone springs to mind), but this seems like a good opportunity to experiment - try something other than ASP.NET, perhaps build a mobile app, play around with some data visualisation tools. After all, that's exactly the sort of behaviour all this logging is meant to encourage :o)

Further Reading

If this has sparked any interest you really should check out Nicholas Felton's personal annual reports over at his Feltron website. I've been a fan of Felton's work for many years, who knows, he might inspire you to start recording every tiny detail of your life too ;o)