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Written by Yash Agrawal in San Francisco.

Quantified Self

January 10, 2020 3 mins

There is no denying that data is well on its way to become the most valuable commodity in the history of the world. Big corporations try to capture, even buy as much data on their users as possible. The simple reason behind that is - it lets them gauge their audience’s interests. It has become almost impossible to escape this phenomenon. Even your Airbnb Messages and Food Orders on delivery apps aren’t safe.

Unless you renounce everything and live off the land in the woods, it is next to impossible to avoid your data being collected and targeted by these corporations. I’ve decided to lean into it and collect as much data on myself as possible so that at least I could personally benefit from it.

I’ve been tracking data about myself for about 4 years now. I don’t claim that this data reads like an open book version of myself. In most cases, it is nothing more than mildly interesting but every now and then it shows a non-obvious change that significantly improves my day to day life. That makes all of this worth it for me. Collecting data has also instilled in me a certain discipline that is required to stick with a not entirely undemanding activity.

Data I Collect

Here’s a list of the major categories I collect data in :

  • Health (obviously)
  • Places
  • Finances
  • Entertainment
  • Work

That pretty much covers everything I need to know and everything I do.

Health

Health data has undoubtedly been the most helpful to me since I’ve started collecting data. I log my weight every morning on the iOS Health App. It also keeps tab on the steps I take everyday (when I have the phone on me, of course) but it isn’t something I actively do or want - still, nice to have.

Weight Tracking

I also like running and I collect my running data on the Nike Run Club App. I would not recommend this app if you are just starting out. The application itself is pretty great and does what it is supposed to, but the API is closed and there is no way available to export your own data. Strava is a better option. I used to live in Illinois and it gets extremely cold so you have to run on the treadmill for half a year and for some reason Strava doesn’t track runs on the treadmill. Another workaround for this is to track everything on Nike Run Club and use an app called RunGap to export it to Strava or wherever you want.

I have a somewhat complicated workflow wherein I record my runs on Nike Run Club, then use RunGap to Export it to Strava and finally, use Strava’s public API to feed data to a personal React application I built to see the stats that I want.

I also track my food habits with an app called LifeSum. They have a very extensive database of ingredients and also support Barcodes.

Food Tracking

I’ve read about people collecting data concerning their mental health in apps where you kind of rate your mental state during the day. I’ve heard promising things about it but I personally like a more detailed account of the day, so I maintain a journal. I originally used to host it on Evernote but I’ve since moved it to Notion. I’ve also tried to do Intermittent Fasting for a few months and I used Zero to track the fasts.

I’ve been able to see direct correlations between what I eat and how I run the next day, how my diet affects my productivity (recorded in the Journal) and how intermittent fasting helped me lose weight. Data reassures you if you are doing something right and gives you pause to reconsider and re-evaluate your day-to-day activities if you are doing something wrong.

Places

This stems from the obsession to collect data. I’ve not seen this be too useful to me other than being able to recommend a restaurant in New Orleans to a friend who’s planning a trip. I use FourSquare to add the places I’ve been to - restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions, etc.

Google Maps is always recording in the background anyway and while it is creepy, I like being able to see that data about myself.

Google Places

Finances

I have yet to come across a perfect solution for this issue which is again an important category to track. I’ve tried several applications - Clarity Money, Mint, Spendee and a smattering of others. The automated ones don’t always get the category of the expense correctly and it becomes a hassle to go back and fix it. Also, the descriptors provided by many banks are just outright incorrect and that is extremely annoying. It is quite a challenge to automate this process, so while an actual working app shows up, I simply track it manually on an application called Buddy. It has a clean no-bullshit UI and doesn’t have any features that just ‘kind of work’. I can always export the data as a CSV file and use that data to see whatever I want.

For other details I use services like Wealthfront, Credit Karma and Robinhood. They have to maintain data for legal reasons and well, that’s good enough for me.

Entertainment

This is mostly for fun. I don’t think I’ve gotten too much out of it except for maybe - how much time I spend watching movies. I use Trakt.tv to monitor TV shows and Movies that I watch. It has to be entered manually and I’ve been religiously following it for a while now. I would be able to answer what my favorite genre is and it is nice to know that the data agrees. I also maintain a list of movies I want to watch on an IMDB list and move it once I do.

Trakt TV

I mostly listen to music on Spotify and I use last.fm to keep track of the artists I often listen to and the song that I’ve played the most number of times. Sometimes, it is pretty interesting when you discover non-obvious things, for example, your preference to music coming out of a specific country to others.

Goodreads is an obvious choice for tracking books.

Screen Time tracks my app usage satisfactorily but I hoped for the Mac app to not include background apps in that time because well, it isn’t very accurate. I am currently working on a chrome extension that would log browsing details locally.

Work

Apart from JIRA boards and commit logs, I personally like to keep a version controlled weekly account of things I’ve completed. It helps in framing the year-end review and gives me time to reflect back upon the week.

Personal projects are also all version controlled and a good old to-do list does the rest. I use Todoist.

Conclusion

I have personally experienced the benefits of tracking data and I would highly recommend others to give it a shot. Stick with it for a month and watch it become a part of your daily routine. I am right at the brink of being obsessive about collecting personal data - just enough to actually learn and grow with it and not spend too much time collecting it. I should also mention that I pay for premium models of most of these services and I’ve personally felt they are worth it. I hope to stick with this for as long as I can and on the way, build my own systems so I don’t keep sharing my data with the corporations.


Written by Yash Agrawal in San Francisco.