One of the first things I discovered this past weekend in Amsterdam at the first ever Quantified Self Europe conference is that I clearly do a bad job explaining what QS is. When asked why I obsessively track things in my life like sleep patterns, exercise habits, food intake, skin condition, and others, I usually give a rambling answer about measuring things to make life better and improve myself and make changes and I like numbers.
Then I’m met with a blank stare which reads, “Freakshow.”
However I spoke with a lot of people this weekend (many of them wearing tracking devices like fitbit & jawbone) who mentioned that when they talk about using RunKeeper or a Withings scale, the response is often “Wow cool, I want to do that too!”
So I’m obviously not a great spokesperson for the movement. However measuring and tracking data about myself is something I’ve been doing ever since I was a little kid, tracking what I spent my babysitting money on and my pet rabbit’s snack intake. I once made a chart extrapolating out all of the possible outfit combinations in my closet (this wasn’t as hard as it might sound, I wore a school uniform during the school year & a camp uniform during the summer, and my mom made the rest of my clothes — it was slim pickings). I was born a data nerd.
WHAT IS QUANTIFIED SELF?
I’ve already disqualified myself from answering that question, so I’m stealing the definition from the Quantified Self site: “Quantified Self is a collaboration of users and tool makers who share an interest in self knowledge through self-tracking. We exchange information about our personal projects, the tools we use, tips we’ve gleaned, lessons we’ve learned.” There. Make sense?
I discovered QS through two of my heroes: 1) a researcher named Seth Roberts, who has been blogging for years about his attempts to improve his lifestyle through self-experimentation and 2) Nicholas Felton, creator of the annual Feltron Report, a collection of beautiful graphics illustrating achievements and quantified activities of Felton throughout the year. Both of these individuals inspired me to begin tracking data to find correlations and improve my life.
I GET THE IDEA, BUT WHAT’S WITH THE MEETUPS?
Quantified Self meetups happen all over the world (and just started in Dublin!). People use them to share what they’ve learned, ask questions and grow together. It’s a community movement of people who want to make their lives and the world around them better.
Show & Tell meetups allow people to discuss things they’re trying, problems they’ve had, get suggestions and then report back on their successes or issues. The conference is an annual event for both users and those building apps and tools for self-trackers to meet and discuss the needs of the community.
You know you’re at a Quantified Self meetup when people show up in the morning with kinks in their hair where their Zeo band was. I can’t tell you how much I learned from the insightful and forward-thinking people at QS Europe. I am very glad I went. I learned about personal data visualization integration, building tools for others, objective versus subjective tracking, and lots in between. I met many inspiring people and returned to Dublin quite energized and enthusiastic (and with some ideas for my Christmas list this year like the jawbone bracelet tracker!).
CURING YOUR SKIN WOES WITH FOOD
The talk I gave was one of the hardest I’ve ever given because it was so personal. I’m very comfortable giving tech talks, discussing APIs and doing programming demonstrations, but I don’t usually talk about personal things.
One’s face is very personal. When I moved to Ireland in 2007, I began to have skin problems. It began gradually and I attributed it to the move, to stress, to late nights drinking with developers and clients, to travel, to whatever excuses I could think of. The stress was multiplied by the anxiety of being embarrassed about how my face looked, but also because my new job in Ireland involved me being on stage in front of large audiences constantly, often several times a week. A year later my skin was perpetually inflamed, red, full of sores and very painful. When one spot would go away, two more would spring up in its place. It was a tough time. I cried a lot.
Frustrated, I went to see my hometown dermatologist while I was home for holidays. He told me that a) this was completely normal and b) there was nothing I could do but go on antibiotics for a year (in addition to spending a fortune on creams and pills). I didn’t believe either of those things.
I was not interested in being on an antibiotic for a year, nor was I interested in Accutane (my best friend has had it multiple times and it hasn’t had long term results, plus it can be risky). What I was interested in was figuring out why this was happening and changing my life to make it stop. I refused to accept my dermatologist’s insistence that what you put in your body has no effect on how you look and feel.
I began systematically cutting things out of my diet to see how I reacted. First chicken and soy, based on a recommendation from a food allergist. Over the course of a year I cut out sugar, gluten, carbs, starches, caffeine, meat, fish until finally the magical month of December 2010 when I cut out dairy. My skin was my own again by New Year’s day this year.
It took a year to figure it out. It was completely worth it. There’s nothing wrong with Irish dairy, it just doesn’t work for me. I drink Americanos instead of lattes now, I don’t eat cereal; none of that is a huge deal. For what it’s worth, I can drink goat’s milk.
It was worth it but it was still tough. So I spoke at QS Europe about my journey in the hopes that it can help and inspire others who are embarrassed about their skin condition or scared of long stints of antibiotics or potentially risky treatments like Accutane. My slides, while not very exciting since it was a lot more storytelling than slide showing, are below. If you are going through something similar I encourage you to find a group of kind and helpful people like QS-ers, or use a community forum like http://curetogether.com/ to help get support and suggestions.
Quantified Self isn’t for everyone, but everyone should feel they have the power to change things in their body and their life for the better.