OPINION19 April 2013

The quantified self


Consumers now have the means to collect huge amounts of data about themselves, says GfK’s Colin Strong. Might they be willing to share it with market researchers?

Many of us are fond of keeping records about ourselves and our lives, and we reflect on them for personal insight – whether it’s a diary, an athlete’s performance record, a blog or a full-blown autobiography. But technological advances are now making available a range of tools that will significantly increase the amount of information that we can capture and share about ourselves.

The ease with which these tools – including smartphones and bio-sensors – can be used to measure how we move, where we are going and how we are feeling means that the Quantified Self (QS) movement could be on the cusp of going mainstream.

This in no small part due to stories like that of Larry Smarr who, by requesting and analysing his own blood tests, managed to spot he was developing Crohn’s Disease before doctors were able to. Others have found self-tracking helpful in controlling behaviours such as over-eating or a lack of exercise. Indeed, health and fitness have been the big early drivers of the QS movement. Millions of runners already use Nike+ to record the progress of their training regimes, for example. This enthusiasm is leading to the development of specific devices such as Fitbit, which tracks activity, or Zeo, which measures sleep cycles. We are starting to reach a point where, for a few hundred pounds, it’s possible to track your vital signs to the same standard as your local A&E.

Data pools
A key element of the QS movement is the pooling of data – initially the motivation was to benchmark yourself against others, but the value of exploring often huge pools of anonymised data is becoming clear. Thousands of patients are sharing information about their conditions on sites such as CureTogether and PatientsLikeMe. And then there are devices like Asthmapolis, which attaches to an asthma inhaler and logs the time and geographic location each time the inhaler is used. Such information can help researchers pinpoint environmental triggers and to monitor whole populations of asthma suffers for any signs of exacerbation.

“The QS movement cannot be treated simply as a fresh resource of willing research participants, or a rich source of free data. Care needs to be taken to respect the delicate nature of the social contract between members”

Importantly for the majority of market researchers, QS is now starting to move out of the health sphere. There are many smartphone apps that collect financial data, such as how much an individual spends and on what things. At the other end of the spectrum, there are more qualitative self-trackers such as the Self-Portrait group on Flickr, where members are producing their own self-portrait photographs and over time building up a library of their joys, disappointments, changing fashions, how they are ageing and how their values are changing.

Many of the new tools that the QS movement throws up offer us the advantage of immediate feedback, captured when the experience is still fresh in the person’s mind. And market research, in return, has resources that the QS community will undoubtedly be excited about, such as ‘in-the-moment’ tools that track reactions to brand touchpoints, and technology that tracks digital activity across devices.

Perhaps it’s here that a reciprocal relationship can be struck. Researchers can offer consumers the tools to generate insights into their own behaviour in return for access to these new sources of data. The challenge for the research sector, however, is making these tools available in a way that is attractive to those wishing to self-quantify.

The QS movement cannot be treated simply as a fresh resource of willing research participants, or a rich source of free data. Many of those who are recording and sharing data about themselves are motivated to improve their lives, or they are sharing the information as members of a community, with the implicit agreement being that they share so that all can benefit. Care needs to be taken to respect the delicate nature of this social contract.

The tipping point?
There is a development waiting in the wings that might just give the QS movement a boost. This is Midata, the UK government’s initiative to give consumers access to data about them that is held by brands. Banks, credit cards, mobile network operators and utilities are already working with the government and their advisors, Ctrl-Shift, to establish how this will work. In the meantime new start-ups are emerging, such as Mydex, Paoga and Qiy, which can facilitate these personal databanks – providing consumers with the tools to access and mine their own data.

It is likely that in this environment consumers will be offered the opportunity to pool their data with others so they can benchmark their activity. And it is not inconceivable that as the market develops, some companies will offer other data collection tools for consumers, such as digital tracking. This can then be integrated with the breadth of consumption data from participating Midata brands to provide very powerful data sources for individuals and market researchers alike.

But perhaps all this paints a vision that is too ambitious in scale. Midata has yet to be implemented, and brands may move towards offering ‘walled garden’ approaches which would limit the opportunity. While we don’t necessarily expect consumers to be data scientists mining their own big data, there may not be a sufficient volume of interest to generate representative pools of data.

Interested to hear your thoughts below.

Colin Strong is managing director of GfK’s technology division in the UK

1 Comment

11 years ago

A fascinating article. In Healthcare, the real value of QS going mainstream, is that we have a situation where patients could own the health data they are generating. They could pool the data with other patients, control who gets access, and set pricing for access to their data. This idea will probably require new legal frameworks, new technology and new software. There are already people in the US developing these kind of platforms.

Like Report