Quantified Self

Apps that monitor everything from your daily calorie intake to how well you sleep can help you to learn a great deal about yourself, plus ways to improve your lifestyle.

Statistics are a much maligned type of information. This could be due to the way they are often manipulated to bolster the arguments of less honest individuals, or the rather cold, impersonal nature of the medium itself. Of course, none of this distracts from the truth that stats are an incredibly useful way to analyse data. To many of us, though, the idea of reading through tables of figures is about as enticing as a camping trip in the Antarctic. But what if the data was all about you?

The increasingly digital nature of our lives means that it is now easy to track our behaviour in a variety of ways, using simple apps and a mobile phone or a computer. Everything from sleeping patterns to reading habits can be logged, stored and even publicly shared with a minimum of effort. There is a movement that promotes this kind of self awareness, dubbed 'The Quantified Self'. The term was coined by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly in 2007, after the two Wired writers saw the potential for tech to impact the way we live and look after our bodies.

"It's the idea that we can take something you care about," explains Kevin Kelly, "and use numbers to capture it, to sense it, to see it in a way we can't normally, and then to respond to that."

For many years people have recorded information about themselves in an effort to control ailments or help them maintain healthy diets. Diabetics constantly monitor their blood sugar levels, while anyone who joins a Weight Watchers programme seems to quickly become an instant expert on the calorific content of meals. The Quantified Self takes these principles and applies them, with the assistance of technology, to other areas in your life, allowing you to build up a picture of how productive, healthy and even happy you are.

Say, for example, you are struggling with sleeping. Downloading an app such as Sleep Cycle can turn your iPhone into a device that monitors your sleep patterns and then gives you a report of how long and deeply you've managed to slumber. If you also use a food diary app, possibly MyFitnessPal, then you might be able to spot patterns of certain foods that could be keeping you awake. Incorporating an additional fitness app or pedometer would also show how exercise contributed to a good night's rest.

The collaborative nature of these data-collection apps can also give us insights into our psychological behaviour. Using a personal-finance app such as Mint can be a helpful way of seeing how and where you spend your money. Pairing it with the information from a health-related app such as Runkeeper could reveal that in the months you exercise less you spend more on comfort food or alcohol. Subconsciously we might already be aware of these facts, but seeing it in black and white can be a wake up call. See also: Best iPhone and iPad apps.

The quantified self: Data collection

Typically, the collection of this data occurs in two ways: passively and manually. Passive is when your phone gathers data without you needing to be directly involved. This is the approach favoured by apps such as Google Now or the Nike Fuelband, which monitor your movements and build up a picture of where you've been and the activities you've completed. The advantage to this is that, once configured, you can forget about it until you want to view the results.

Manual apps are more likely to involve a greater level of detailed data, which requires direct input by the user. The most common form is the calorie-counting apps such as MyFitnessPal and location services such as Foursquare.

Once you've amassed this information about yourself, you can then choose either to act upon it solo (adjusting the relevant behaviours and practices) or harness the power of positive peer pressure by heading to your social network of choice. Many fitness and nutrition apps have the option to post your progress to the web in an effort to motivate you. It is a principle that organisations such as Weight Watchers have used for years, whereby you weigh in at the start of a meeting so that everyone can see your progress. It might sound brutal but, provided that your friends are encouraging, it can be an excellent tool that helps you work toward a goal.

The current trend of gamification is another tool that many apps incorporate. Instead of a dry list of stats, users are instead set a series of challenges that are rewarded with badges, points or bragging rights with friends. These can range from streaks that are achieved by consistently hitting daily goals to animated celebrations when you reach a target. It might sound silly, but friends or even your smartphone telling you that you are making progress can have a positive effect on your outlook.

The quantified self: Privacy concerns

For some the idea of The Quantified Self is nothing more than intense digital navel gazing, and a number of privacy advocates are concerned by the amount of detailed data that users are already collecting during their day-to-day lives. This is certainly more of a thorny subject in light of the recent NSA/GCHQ spying scandal brought to the world's attention by Edward Snowden (see tinyurl.com/L88hhyx).

But the potential benefits to health, lifestyle and even social interaction makes The Quantified Self an endeavour that many exponents judge worthy of the risk. In fact, across the world there are now Quantified Self community groups that meet up to share their stories about self-tracking and how it has positively affected their lives.

"We're entering a new era of data," says community organiser Ernesto Ramirez, "not just about the things we're doing but who we are as people... and being able to make decisions based on that. Being able to experiment, to possibly make your life better than it is now."

Of course, people are more than a just series of statistics on a page. This is something that The Quantified Self movement understands, but it also sees the power that accurate data gives people to gain more control over their lives.

Wolf has a simple mantra that he uses to help people understand what, at its heart, the movement is all about and how it is relevant to everyone.

"What did you do?" he asks. "How did you do it? And what did you learn?" See also: Best Android apps.