Ernesto Ramirez was working on his PhD in public health at the University of California at San Diego when he heard about Quantified Self, a California-based company founded by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, both former editors at Wired magazine. Back in 2007, Wolf and Kelly first began conceiving a community with the goal of bringing personal computing closer to our bodies and more intertwined with our lives, says Ramirez.
In addition to using his FitBit to track how many steps he’s taken – 9 million and counting – Ramirez is program director at Quantified Self Labs where he helps coordinate international meetings, conferences, community forums and a guide to self-tracking tools for the organization’s worldwide user community. There are over 100 Meetups organized around the world by and for members of the Quantified Self community in Dublin, Ireland; Porto, Portugal; Salt Lake City, Utah, and beyond.
Ramirez says that when Kelly and Wolf started Quantified Self, people who wanted to measure their activity levels essentially had to “strap all manner of tech contraptions” on their bodies and wear them for a week or more to capture measurements. Fast forward to today when FitBits can be used to capture how many steps you walked around the park this morning or how many calories you burned during Sunday’s half-marathon.
When Ramirez looks back on Quantified Self’s first conference, which took place in 2011, he remembers that they had four tables with tools that were being built to measure people’s activity levels and life activities. At QS15, Quantified Self’s flagship conference – which takes place this year from June 18 to 20 in San Francisco – there’s a “full on expo happening,” he says. “We have tons of companies showing off their tools and devices this year. Everything has exploded, which is a good word to describe this space right now.”
For sure, it’s an exciting time to work in this field. “The core technology that people are using to build devices is just becoming more prevalent. There’s lots of software that can use sensors to take data,” says Ramirez, who also points to the falling price point for devices such as FitBit – which use to retail for $300 to $500 a piece and can now be purchased for as little as $59.99.
Where’s all this going? Well, if Ramirez and the team at Quantified Self have their way, we’ll be able to marry up all of this data and, through machine learning, use it to find out about ourselves and the ways that we interact with each other. He acknowledges that we’re still at the “very early stage” of trying to make sense of what we can do with this data.
To help with this effort, Quantified Self Labs received a $600,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation earlier this year. The team at Quantified Self will be focused on providing “support for efforts to improve access to self-collected data, by bringing together stakeholders and providing independent news and research that highlights data access,” according to a press release.
Ramirez says his team are just through the first quarter of this two-year project; they’ve just wrapped up their 2015 Quantified Self Public Meeting where more than 150 stakeholders worked on how to derive personal and public health benefit from personal data. The team will continue developing editorial work that highlights how personal data changes lives and how data access plays a role in that. (Some of these stories are posted online.)
But why does this matter so much today? According to Ramirez, there’s more data being collected about our health and behaviors than ever before. As he sees it, the possibilities of wearable tech are endless. You can strap a device on to your tennis racket to analyze your swing. You can wear a band around your waist to assess your running form. Kids playing football can wear skull caps with sensors to alert coaches and parents they need to take the kid out of the game because they’ve been hit too many times.
“These rich data streams from new tools and technologies hold clues about some of our most pressing questions related to health and wellbeing,” he says. “But many people don’t realize that they aren’t always able to access their own personal data or the data they contribute to research.”
With full access to their data, Ramirez believes that people will be able to ask meaningful questions about their lives, their families and even their communities. Armed with this information, all of us will be able to try new ideas, seek and test meaningful changes and make more informed decisions.
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