This Guy Obsessively Recorded His Private Data for 10 Years
Back in 2006, during the Dark Ages of self-quantification, Nicholas Felton started doing a strange thing: in the Notes app on his phone, the graphic designer started recording the details of his life in obsessive detail. He tracked time spent in Manhattan or Brooklyn. He counted emails, texts, and postcards sent. He even documented the day he first discovered a gray hair on his head. He then spun that information into data-viz gold, in the form of a splashy, detailed, 12-page report on his life that year.
That was the second Feltron Report. The first Feltron Report covers 2005, and it came together at the end of that year by chance. “I just wanted a way of tying up the year,” Felton says. “As I looked around, I noticed that I could use my last.fm account to see what kind of music I had listened to. Other things like calendar entries, photos, my memory, and lists I had made could fill in the blanks and create an interesting document.”
It’s now 10 years later, and Felton—who worked at Facebook for years and was integral to designing the Timeline—has doggedly documented the details of his life, using it to create an annual report. In 2012, this even spawned the creation of an app: Reporter is modeled closely after an app Felton made that year, that would ping him at intervals to remind him to take stock of current events.
These reports offer a voyeuristic look into Felton’s life, but, more academically, they paint a crisp picture of how personal data has evolved over the past decade. “In 2008 it was a little bit weird to have a pedometer tracking all my footsteps—and it wasn’t even a fun modern one like a Fitbit that syncs remotely,” Felton says. “Now it’s simply something that’s built into our phones.” With that industry change in mind, Felton’s 10th and final Feltron Report is a compilation of data only collected through commercially available apps and devices. Felton won’t be creating new reports, but based on this last round he says he hopes the next wave of data collection is one that’s context-sensitive.
n light of the final report, we asked Felton (who isn’t even tired of this process: “I’m scared I’m going to miss it,” he says) about his 10 years of very-intense self-reflection.
WIRED: After 10 Feltron Reports, why are you stopping?
Felton: A bunch of reasons. One is, I think 10 is a great number to stop on. If I go to 11 it feels like I’m committing to 20.
I also feel like the last couple reports have led to this being the last one. So in 2013, making this really audacious attempt to get all my communication into one report, was like the last frontier for me for what might be manually possible. And then for the tenth one, I simply think that the world of apps and devices for self-quantification has come so far in the 10 years since I’ve started. This was a great time to look at what was available about my life from these devices, compared to previous reports. And that felt like a fantastic capstone to the project.
WIRED: What apps and devices did you use this year?
Felton: On my phone I was relying on the Moves app, Instagram, my camera roll, and Ski tracks for skiing. And on my laptop, I used Netflix, Rescue Time, and iTunes. For dedicated devices I used a Basis watch that gave me sleep and heart rate data; for my weight I used a Withings Scale; for blood alcohol I had a Lapka monitor, and in my car I was using the Automatic tracker to track my driving behavior.
WIRED: Now that you’ve guinea pig-ed all these devices, which one is the most user friendly?
Felton: For my money, the Basis is one of the best devices. And the Moves app. The Basis gave my minute by minute heart rate data, and I could identify sleep and different activities with a battery that lasts around five days. And the Moves app gives me location and movement.
WIRED: Did you use any apps and devices that ended up not contributing to the final report?
Felton: I had a Fitbit on, and a Nike FuelBand. The Basis also gives me steps, along with Moves. So I had four different sources that were all giving me footsteps, so I had to decide which ones I wanted to work with. Ultimately I decided to get that activity from Moves because it could also give me cycling and running.
WIRED: What’s your methodology like? What kind of schedule do you keep, to stay on top of the data?
Felton: I try not to touch the data until January 1 rolls around. I feel like looking at it would change my behavior and not be a naturalistic recording of what I do, so I don’t delve into it until later.
WIRED: Looking back, what was the most annoying, torturous data-collection method you’ve undertaken?
Felton: Certainly, recording conversations was the most onerous. It was the only one where I’ve found myself doing the mental math about how much longer I have to do this. It was definitely worth it, because it was such a novel and interesting data set to collect, but I definitely wondered at times if I could keep it up for another year. It was probably an hour per day of recording the conversations.
The other one that was most like a performance art act was in 2009, I had business cards printed that asked people to, I asked them to go fill out a survey that asked about what did and what I talked about and where we went. For friends this was fine, they really looked forward to getting it, but for strangers I found it pretty awkward to have to give it to people like my dentist or a taxi driver I chatted to for too long. My dentist did respond which I thought was amazing.
WIRED: So much of the conversation around self-quantification comes down to how we can improve ourselves and our behavior. Has that happened to you?
Felton: I try to set this up so the way I collect data will have some positive influence on me. Especially the year I did conversations, one of the things I wanted to improve was the recollection of people’s names. Otherwise I just think this extra consideration that goes into everything I can do certainly makes me more mindful, like mindful of the streets I walk down, or mindful of what I put in my body. I’m not on auto-pilot. They’re all events that have triggered a notification in my mind that this is a significant act.
WIRED: In the past, you’ve expressed concern that people are ignorant of the increasing amount of data being collected about them. Your reports have brought awareness to this trend. How will you continue to bring awareness to it going forward?
Felton: It’s pretty central to the kind of projects I want to build, that are based around giving people a better understanding of they data they produce in their lives, which is generally not being taken advantage of by themselves but is being used by companies to get them to buy more stuff, or to just leverage their information. So, how many people understand this about their lives, and use it as a way of understanding or expressing themselves, is a priority to meet. Hopefully there will be some other products in the future that will be useful to people, separate from Reporter.
WIRED: You say on your site that this edition attempts to capture the current state of personal data. What is the current state of personal data?
Felton: In terms of making sense of the data, I like to think this report goes further than the apps that are dedicated to any one of these particular silos. I’m trying to create context between all of them. So in previous years I would have a page about drinking, and a page about driving, and they would be separate. The idea now is to bring them all in concert with each other so you can see that this quarter was one in which I was working harder or traveled less or drank more. I brought location into all the graphs so you can understand how that impacts my behavior. This is what I’d love to see in more products—to see them be aware of each other, to mesh all these data points into one interface.
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