Designer Nicholas Felton spent 79 hours collecting data about himself in 2012. On New Year’s Day 2013, he made a book of his findings.
At any given moment in the previous year, he discovered, there was a 43 percent chance that he was alone. He was productive 49.3 percent of the time, and was most productive on Wednesdays, when he was 57.8 percent productive. He spent 32 percent of 2012 sleeping.
Felton had effectively turned himself into a series of charts, graphs, and spreadsheets. He could cross reference his mood with his productivity, or he could simply measure the amount of time he spent with his girlfriend Olga. Since 2005, Felton has been living the quantified self dream: a life where everything’s measured. Most recently, he began documenting his life several times per day with a custom mobile app. Today, he’s bringing his app to the masses so anyone can measure life the way he has, for $3.99. It’s called Reporter.
Reporter works by buzzing you several times per day with a brief quiz based on the questions Felton asks himself. They range from "Where are you?" to "What are you doing?" and "Who are you with?" Some questions can be answered by tapping Yes or No, while others are multiple choice questions, let you type in text, or offer a location picker that polls Foursquare for nearby places. You can also add your own questions (like "Are you happy?") or program certain questions to occur only when you hit the app’s Awake or Sleep switch (like "How did you sleep?" and "What did you learn today?"). Each time you report, the app also pulls in various pieces of information like the current weather, how many steps you’ve taken today (using the iPhone 5s’ M7 motion coprocessor), and how noisy it is around you using your phone’s mic.
'Reporting' is like journaling — a practice that provides the most real value in hindsight
The act of "reporting" (in Felton’s terminology) is kind of like journaling — a practice that’s therapeutic, but provides the most real value in hindsight and in aggregate, as Felton learned. Reporter displays a few pocket-sized infographics to help you reflect on your answers, but the real sum of all this information is far from accessible until you export it. The app stores all your data locally, but lets you output it as a CSV or JSON file — at which point you can map it out any way you’d like. Felton realizes that not everyone has statistics expertise, so he hopes to add a feature that lets users print their own books in the future like he does, and expects members of the Reporter community to create web tools to visualize data in unique ways.
It should be pretty simple, Felton says, to see which month of the year you were happiest, or compare productivity levels between two jobs you’ve held. But for Felton and developer Drew Breunig, the best lessons aren’t always learned from charts and graphs. "Some of the most interesting things I learn are not from visualizations but from the app’s autosuggest," Breunig says. "I typed in M (in response to ‘Who are you with?’) and got my co-worker Mary instead of my wife Megan. It was a scary point when I thought I’d been working too much and should spend more time at home."
"Fitbit is missing when you got married or bought a car."
Felton still has a Narrative lifelogging camera clipped to his lapel and a Fitbit in his pocket, but he feels like these gadgets only tell part of the story. "Fitbit is missing when you got married or bought a car," he says. "That context is missing and these events have such a huge impact on your activity." In building Reporter, Felton and Breunig hoped to add a customizable human input to lifelogging. The app’s workflow has been manicured so thoughtfully that it takes just moments to report. Logging events and activity has long been a preoccupation for Felton, who got his first chance to bring his ideas to life at scale while at Facebook.
Felton led design on Timeline, the company’s life-spanning profile pages, and Open Graph. He wanted to let anybody share their "life events" like graduating from college, but also the minutiae of daily life, like the song you’re listening to on Spotify right this second. Timeline launched to much fanfare, and Felton was named one of Fast Company’s 50 most influential designers in America. But Facebook soon learned that it made a fatal assumption: people don’t always want to document their lives as a historian might — publicly, at least. Meanwhile, Felton checked his personal data charts and noticed that he had been spending more time "in meetings" and "in email" than "designing" — an activity that had previously dominated his life. He left Facebook and began working on a pure utility that let you document your life privately and locally (unless you want to sync with Dropbox).
"We don’t own your data, but we try to show it to you in new ways"
To its creators, Reporter is about gaining self-knowledge. "We don’t own your data, but we try to show it to you in new ways and help you be aware of what you’re emitting," says Felton. "I want you to be scared by your routine, or by decisions you haven’t thought about because you don’t want to face them," says Breunig. But is it worth spending 79 hours a year measuring yourself by hand? "My reports are driven mainly by curiosity," Felton says. "I have questions that tech can’t answer for me yet, like how does my behavior change based on who I’m with? It’s cool to explore the foreground of what will be possible."
After a year of reporting every 76 minutes, Felton seems a bit tired. In world that’s increasingly averse to plugging in in front of your friends and family, reporting could be exhausting and antisocial. So for 2014, Felton won’t be focused on manual data-entry, he says. 2014’s Annual Report will cover all the data he gathers using a combination of the Basis fitness tracker, FuelBand, Fitbit, Moves for iPhone, Narrative, Lapka blood alcohol monitor, and other fitness gadgets.
In 10 years, Felton says, all this data collection will be happening constantly and automatically. The idea sounds scary, at first, but Felton won’t mind a bit. By measuring ourselves privately and intelligently, we can potentially gain incredible insights into the choices we’ve made, and the choices we have yet to make. It’s not yet clear what kind of discoveries personal measurement will yield, but they’ll span the entirety of our lives from our health to our productivity. Reporter doesn’t quite fulfill the ultimate dream of the quantified self, but if you’re an obsessive tracker, or simply hoping to learn a bit more about your daily routine, it might help chart your path to reaching it.