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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

For Self Quantifiers, Data Collection Is Now Art

Posted By on Tue, Mar 19, 2013 at 12:00 PM

  • Chris Phipps/Strava

Screw meditation. Established here in San Francisco, the Quantified Self Movement has been tapping technology to pave its path to self-awareness.

The group of "selfers," created by Wired founder Kevin Kelly, has members worldwide who use apps and gadgets to track pretty much everything about themselves, including mood, exercise, weight, meditation, life expectancy, sleep patterns -- the list goes on. The movement turns practitioners into scientists and artists, who can easily log data on their smart phones and share their findings with one another at meet-ups.

Here's a good example:

Strava, a Bay Area-based company, makes an app that enables runners and bikers to track their GPS coordinates, as well as their speed, and calories burned. As of late, those users have gotten creative with their routes, using their data for more than just clocking exercise.

Maybe you've seen the Verizon commercial in which a guy bikes a heart around San Francisco, then sends his Strava-created map to his girlfriend? Well, believe it or not, that's not just some cheesy ad campaign. Cyclist and Strava user Payam Rajabi actually rode the heart-shaped route around San Francisco last Valentine's Day and sent the final GPS map to his long-distance girlfriend. When Verizon decided to recreate the romantic stunt for its ad campaign, they asked Rajabi to replicate his ride on film. The result is an adorable example of how self-tracking data is being used:

But Rajabi isn't the only self-quantifier to use his app for more than its techie functions. Chris Phipps is another creative cyclist whose Strava maps have an artistic bent.

When Rajabi's commercial first appeared, Phipps says, his friends thought Rajabi had ripped off his idea. Phipps has been making creative rides for quite a while, spelling out words and drawing pictures over the Sunset District in San Francisco. But, explains Phipps, "I didn't come up with the idea for GPS art, but just decided to try it while riding one day."

click to enlarge CHRIS PHIPPS/STRAVA
  • Chris Phipps/Strava

His first message, penned across the Richmond, was a simple one in support of the 49ers. Since then, he's gotten quite elaborate, creating tributes to the Giants, Lagunitas, and, of course, Nyan Cat.

  • Chris Phipps/Strava
Chris Phipps/Strava

His Giants ride, he says, took several hours to map, but he can usually pedal out words without consulting a map at all. Sunset residents don't really notice him, he told us. "I have received a few funny looks when I stop halfway down a block and turn around, but to most people I just look like any other cyclist going down the street."

Again, Wired's influence on self-tracking is gaining momentum -- Phipps was inspired to pedal out his messages by a 2010 article in the tech publication about a man who used GPS tracking to drive a special missive across America. Rather than touting local sports teams, the driver spelled out the words "Read Ayn Rand."

But self-quantifying is much more than a device to scrawl a cute message across town. Chase Perkins, the founder of a new app called Thoughtly, sees a higher purpose in the movement. His app tracks what users write online, from academic articles to Reddit threads, and uses the data to create a digital resume which can be easily added to users' e-mail signatures -- or their comments on sites like this one.

Thoughtly users who want to demonstrate their expertise on topics, such as Quantified Self, for instance, could write about the subject, then display proof of their insights to fellow users. The app wraps self-quantifying and self-branding into one neat little package, and is currently enlisting users for its beta release.

"We are the John Hancock of the future," Perkins says, "where your relevant experience is embedded in your digital signature." He hopes Thoughtly will contribute to online conversations by lending credibility to web commenters, who can display their knowledge without revealing their identities.

As an active Redditor, Perkins says, "The one downside to Reddit is users that are respected on the site can't extend credit for their contributions outside of the Reddit platform, without exposing their authentic name (doxing is a strict violation of Reddit values). What we are aiming to accomplish, is to summarize users significant accomplishments, without displaying their username or specific actions, so they can maintain credibility without sacrificing anonymity."

For San Franciscans interested in tracking and studying themselves, Quantified Self hosts regular meetups where people can exchange resources and present their work. The next meetup is this Friday evening in Berkeley.

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About The Author

Kate Conger

Kate Conger has written for SF Weekly since 2011.


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