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Quantified Baby

Published in Technology

Quantified Baby Chart

As any parent I am constantly concerned about my child’s health. With data it is easier to identify emerging problems and also diagnose the underlying problem as a precaution rather than merely reactive. For these reasons we spent the past year on our Quantified Baby project.

Throughout the year we have been maintaining various quantitative and qualitative data points of our son’s habits and growth. From the day he was born we gathered every time he ate, slept, pooped, peed, and took a bath. This included the quantity of food, time of sleep, and even (optionally) the color, consistency and leakiness of his output.

Overall our son has been extremely healthy, happy, and effusive. To date his he only been sick with a common cold once for about 5 days, had no allergies, and slept through the night after the first three weeks when he was effectively gaining weight. While I know that our data capture and analysis doesn’t account for our fortune, we do believe that it was beneficial to our own parenting, regularity, and ability to be aware and informed of his health for any doctor visits. We also didn’t sweat all of the details. There are a few gaps due to lack of sleep, general distraction, or sometimes simply bucking the machine (i.e. “I don’t wanna”).

We learned a lot of insights along the way, particularly in the methods, benefits, and difficulties of quantifying your baby. For our measuring, we used the capable, full featured, and easy to use Total Baby. Designed by an engineer for his own family, it has the practicality of design by someone that is also forced to use it in a bleary eyed state with a crying baby in another hand, and a bottle/diaper/blanket in the other. This is not meant as a review of this particular application but more as a highlight to what the baseline and required features should be of any quantified self applications.

Make it Useful

Many ‘quantified self’ applications take a conceited view of their data capture and require you to enter data with little to no information value returned to you. These tools are fun at first but quickly become forgotten since they required action outside of the normal activity.

By contrast, quantified self tools must provide at least immediate value. By example our measurement of feeding provided a timer of the current activity, and also set a (configurable) alarm for the next feeding that would typically occur in 2 hours at the beginning. When you’ve been cycling through several days of polyphasic short sleeps, this type of simple arithmetic becomes harder than you may imagine.

So by providing an immediate benefit (automatic recurrence timer) we were clearly incentivized to keep using the application. A missed feeding would quickly get entered so we knew how he was doing throughout the days and a simple count of times and amount he fed to ensure positive weight gain. You can imagine the potential for existing social networks to measure and alert on emerging trends that may impact your health through continuous input for all of your data.

Make it Easy

Quantified Baby 3

While we are both engineers, when first learning to deal with another human life your focus tends to be on their needs and not learning complex applications. Actions and questions need to be extremely clear and operable with a single hand and thumb.

It should also be easy to get quick statistics from a glance so that you can take action if necessary. With our tracking we could immediate see the time since last feeding, changes, sleep, and even bath or other customizable timers. This bio-dashboard meant we were reassured through parallel mechanisms that we were tracking data and everything was on track with him.

Automated tracking is even better as they don’t require remembering or only capturing observed actions. Deb Roy’s work in ‘The Birth of a Word’ demonstrates passive monitoring of language development that would not be as clear in limited measurements. I had originally planned a few hardware sensors that would measure crib pressure for motion in sleep and rolling over – but as they say “finish all your projects before the kid is born; you won’t get any done afterwards”.

Make it Shareable

The data are useful to one person, but arguably are just a substitute for memory. However with two or more people, a quantified self application becomes the collaboration center-point to have multiple inputs and actions on the information. When my wife would change diapers or finish a feeding my own phone would update with these events and I would be continuously informed without having ask, or even worse, wake her up.

The data also worked on any of our iOS-based devices. So instead of having to chase down a single unique device we could instead grab anyone iPhone or iPad that we had nearest to us – which usually wasn’t far as they are also great devices for reading while rocking, or playing some soothing music – proving the mobile phone in and of itself the greatest invention for parents.

Make it Open

A quantified self application should be expandable, and open to customization. While by default Total Baby has a good configuration of feedings, colors (if you need to be that specific), food types, and activity types – you are also able to add your own activities, timers, and as I mentioned before, automatic reminders. That means if you have special needs, medications, therapy, or just want to ensure validation that grandparents are getting equal time, then it’s important that the application allow you to add these as necessary.

A surprising and welcome feature of Total Baby was that all of the data were exportable as a Spreadsheet CSV and SQLite database file. While not the cleanest data model (times are just strings in the event descriptions which are not enumerated), it allowed us to play with charting and general metrics as our son grew. The growth charts and other timelines are also all exportable and email-able to family, doctors or caretakers. I can also make backups in case any of our devices are lost.

Opportunities for Health

“It’s your body, make sure you know what is going on with it.”

In personal health, I’m continually astonished by lack of personal data that is measured and retained. How many times do I need to fill out basic details such as address or blood type that I am dubious that real information such as blood levels, heart states, or other extremely important information is gathered, available, or used for any kind of passive analysis and alerting.

While I do trust my health practitioner, no one is as invested in the health of my body as I am. Doctors are busy and laden by antiquated technology that prevents them from providing the care they would really like to. There have been numerous attempts are revolutionizing the healthcare industry that fail through lack of focus, complex policy, privacy issues, or just lack of general initiative.

I want to see the same technology that reroutes traffic, recommends new shoe ads, and sorts my email to understand when I need to alter medications, change my behavior or visit a specialist who upon my arrival would have a full, and appropriate, analysis and access to my data history.

By focusing on the quantified self, we are empowered to monitor and maintain our own well being – and obviously with children to assist in theirs as they grow. I can invest the time, effort, and even technological development that creates a solution now that will aid my own family.


Faith in Services, Trust in Data

Published in Technology

Moleskine Concept Diagram 1

Earlier this week Google announced Keep, their new service for quickly storing notes from your phone and online. As others have pointed out, it’s similar to the popular Evernote. Feature comparisons aside, the launch of new services providing common, even essential, access to my information highlights a disconcerting trend.

Faith in Services

Underlying these product decisions is the manifestation of the products that we use. Historically we purchased physical media that we would hold and use as much as we wanted. Despite a company going out of business, ending a product or even upgrading the version we could choose to keep using the product as we had originally acquired and intended. Whether that was Word Perfect or Windows 95, we were in control.

With the advent and ubiquity of connectivity and the Internet, we have become more reliant on services – popularly referred to as The Cloud. There are numerous benefits to this architecture such as scalability, reliability, accessibility, and maintainability. Users can access information from almost any device whenever they need it without worrying about location, versions, or upgrades.

Consequently we put our faith in the service and the trust that there is connection to the internet, the service will be working, that our information is not leaked or shared, and even that the company or product continues to exist. We are now reliant on decisions for which we have little or no control.

Reality of Providers

Evernote has a vision to create a 100-year company, a nearly unique perspective for a new information technology company. It is the kind of pledge that instills a confidence that considers building a long-term relationship with users and exhibiting through products and services.

By contrast, invested and publicly traded companies have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profits and increase shareholder value. They are legally required to change their products and business to contiuosly get the most money possible. Users are not shareholders and as such are beholden to the decisions to improve revenue. This is not bad per se, but can have consequences in products that live or are shutdown that may seem arbitrary to users.

Google is well known for this behavior, as recently in shutting down Google Reader, though even more relatedly the Keep-similar closing of Google Notebook that was part of a regular “spring cleaning”.

Beyond mere existence of these services we are still reliant on the stability of the service provider. The recent launch of SimCity was plagued with service failures due to scaling and security. And there are many more intentional service related restrictions, particular if the service provider is a hardware manufacturer with clear incentives to lock you into their physical platform.

Trust in Data

The point is that we must realize the vitalness of protecting and accessing our data. Whether my personal notes, email, photos, business plans, or any other information that I have, it is imperative that we retain ownership and rights to the underlying data. Users should be able to hold their data with permission to access, use and reuse regardless of future business decisions.

Services are a value-add. They make my data more useful and perform amazing capacity such as character recognition, entity extraction, geocoding, analysis, and recommendations. But these cannot come at the detriment of control and access to the information that exists independent of a particular product.

Consumers are relatively new to technology, and there is a constant flow of marketing, features, and new products to try. These are easily appealing and exciting while overlooking to the potential implications of investing into a particular service. I hope the culture evolves to where access to the data is not an esoteric or unrelated conversation but is a forthright requirement of any new service.

OpenDataDay and Hacking for DC

Published in Data, Technology, Travel

World Bank GlobeI often say that Washington, DC is a city that thinks more about the world than it does about itself. Situated as the Nation’s capital, headquarters to a multitude of multinational organizations, and even home to people from all over the world, DC works at large scales that cover other cities, regions, and countries. Even the governance of DC itself is subject to the politics and power of unelected officials.

So it is a bit ironic that the international OpenDataDay Hackathon, hosted locally at the World Bank brought together so many smart and technically talented people to work on local DC datasets and solutions.

8500623959_2ffc953865.jpgYou can see the summary and links to all of the various projects on the OpenDataDay DC hackpad. There is a wealth of interesting links, problems, ideas, and output; from mapping the locations of trees by species, to analysis of DC public school vs. charter school performance and walkability.

Beyond just this one day event there is a burdgeoning community of people that are data astute and gathering together to perform some really great projects. DataKind is hosting a follow up DC DataDive on March 15-17, 2013. Data Community DC is an umbrella of at least four other meetup groups discussing data visualization, data science, data business and the R analysis platform.

And if you want to focus on DC, then the new Code for DC chapter of the Code for America Brigade has a few focused projects looking at social services, neighborhood councils, education, and even fire hydrants. Sometimes it’s necessary for us to spend our time and volunteer efforts locally in the communities where we live.

Everyblock closes

Published in Neogeography, Technology, Web

EveryBlock_ Building permits in Schuylerville - Throgs Neck - Edgewater Park | EveryBlock NYC.jpgIn 2007 at the beginning of the popular emergence of local maps and amidst a changing journalism industry, an innovative platform was launched that provided a uniquely local and up to date view of cities. Everyblock, a news feed for your neighborhood, was built as an open-source platform that used government open data feeds to provide a user friendly dashboard of the various activities, crimes, 311 service supports, and even chat messages and social media posts.

Unlike most other sites, Everyblock really considered how people could access and understand the numerous data that permeated around their home every day. At the time I was working on Mapufacture which took a more abstract view of the same data and I always appreciated the care and experience the Everyblock team put into making the information accessible.

Communities and Their Tools

Unfortunately today NBC, whom acquired Everyblock in 2009, decided to shut the site down without any warning. There are likely justified reasons why NBC did not want to continue to support the site. Adrian shares his views on the shutdown and the community are sharing their suprise and thoughts on the official post. Clearly people that enjoyed and even relied on Everyblock as a way to access important local information are now left without this key resource. This is obviously not the first, nor the last, time that a web site that people loved and expected to work was shutdown and they were required to move to an alternative.

Underlying this particular example is something more concerning. Everyblock was a site that was designed to build community and as an interface to local, civic and government life. In some ways it could be considered as a basic public good that served a need unmet by other official and commercial sources. Additionally it provided a forum for citizens to share their experiences, needs, ideas and issues. I always thought there was a lot more opportunity in Everyblock to create real collaboration for neighborhoods to solve their local issues.

People are generally more mobile. I know very few people that now settle into a single place for decades, let alone in the neighborhood that they were born. We are moving, shifting, and finding ourselves consistently in new areas where we don’t understand the local issues or have an opportunity to meet all of our neighbors. Social networks reinforce maintaining our existing connections independent of distance which subsequently can ‘fill your dance card’ and leave less time to connect with the neighbors.

In addition we are constantly engaged with technology and the web. By providing an avatar for the real world in our online social networks, Everyblock reconnected us to the place where we live and our children are growing up. Perhaps Everyblock didn’t reach a ubiquitous engagement that may possible or desired, but it was a well crafted platform that was useful even if it only had a single user.

Git and go

The Everyblock code is open-source and the OpenBlock Project is an attempt to build a community around the project. However there are many other components that go into a site such as the data feeds, community management, and general infrastructure and monitoring. Creating an instance for a city is a big effort that also requires a long-term strategy. I’m curious if this becomes a government run service or if local technologists such as Code for America Brigade could become reliable and sustainable provides of this type of service.

I am truly sad to see Everyblock go – and very thankful to Adrian, Wilson, Paul and Daniel for their vision and work to make Everyblock a reality and inspiration for what is possible.

Guerilla Geography from Daniel Raven-Ellison

Published in Neogeography, Technology

Guerilla GeographyAs part of Geography Awareness Week National Geographic hosted a talk about guerrilla geography by Daniel Raven-Ellison. You can read more about Daniel’s work on his site or blog The Geography Collective.

Daniel’s talk was enjoyable and resonated with what made me adopt geography as a new career. He passionately seeks to experience and perceive places and to teach others. His Mission:Explore books provide intriguing experiments, particularly for children, to learn more about where they live, how they move, the history, culture, and environment of places. And particularly relevant to guerilla geography, about how they can impact and influence this space as a medium for expression and commumity.

He also riffed a bit on psychogeography and reminded me of Tim Waters’ sense tours where he advises people to stop when they see something interesting, close their eyes and smell or hear in order to leverage the other senses in really understanding a place. Or Christian Nold’s biomapping and sensory journeys. Daniel has done “urban earth” walks through major cities while taking a photo every 8 steps. The result is a visceral flow through living urban centers giving you a mere glimpse of the life, paths, and people that inhabit these areas.

Mission:Food bookDaniel is building very simple and effective tools and experiments for anyone to engage with geography. It has large similarities and goals to my work in Neogeography which utilizes potentially more advanced, and often technical, tools but in similarly colloquial ways to share stories and personal experiences with location. What’s also interesting about his work is that he introduces the scientific method in subtle ways such as challenging kids to record the outcome of days they walk under a ladder and days they don’t in order to determine if there is in fact an impact on one’s luck.

Perhaps more controversial, but arguably important, he encourages children to “Meet your meat” that you’re going to eat. Visit the local farm to see the cows, sheep, or other animals and understand the flow of food through the land and from the environment that forms your meals.

I’m not sure if they’ll post his talk from this week, but you can watch his talk from NatGeo Live!.