Quantified Self: Is self-tracking the future of behavior change?

Blog Post

I spend a lot of time testing, tracking, and analyzing data. I’m not talking about the work I do here at Ogilvy–I’m talking about all of the daily efforts I undertake to manage my Type 1 diabetes. My life is full of numbers and tech gadgets, from a meter to test my blood glucose to mobile apps like dLife (for recording insulin doses) and Low Carb Diet Assistant (for counting everything from carbs to glasses of water consumed). Being somewhat of a geek, I’m always looking for the next best tool to help me track—and, even better, to help me analyze and interpret—data about my own health behaviors.

And so it was within this context that my ears perked up during last week’s DHCX conference, as Ernesto Ramirez of the Center for Wireless and Population Health Systems shared his thoughts on the role of self-tracking as an effective tool for health behavior change.

In his work, Ernesto focuses on how to apply emerging technologies (e.g., sensors, mobile, social networking) to better the health of individuals and populations through measurement and analysis of behavioral patterns. Think Fitbit for counting steps or Zeo for measuring sleep—or even Hugo Campos’ project to photograph every meal he eats and post to Flickr.

I sat down with Ernesto for a Q&A on the “quantified self” movement and how it might be applied to public health in the near future.

What does “quantified self” mean?

Quantified self started as a group [see the Quantified Self website: “a collaboration of users and tool makers who share an interest in self knowledge through self-tracking”] but people are increasingly using the term to reference a movement and as a catchall for self-data collection. There are over 50 Quantified Self Meetup groups around the world made up of people who use self-tracking for personal use, people that build tools and apps for businesses, researchers, etc.

The important thing to remember is that this is not just about creating spreadsheets—it’s about collecting data in whatever form is important to you…whether it is tracking colors that represent how you feel or taking photos of what you eat.

How does the quantified self lead to behavior change?

You get instantaneous feedback. For example, you can plug a blood pressure cuff into an iPhone and wirelessly send the data to yourself or to your doctor. You can also look at longitudinal data about yourself—both trends over time as well as correlations between things. With the ability to look at all kinds of different inputs, we can see better how things connect to each other. And we can create adaptive models for specific and meaningful behavior change in individuals. The behavior change model closely mirrors the scientific method—you observe, make a hypothesis, and so on. It’s really about what happens to you when you start to understand information about yourself.

How do we motivate people to use self-data collection tools?

It isn’t so much about motivating people to use the tools—you can put people on the path but you can’t make people be self-motivated. That said, things like gamification and good design can help by making things fun, easy, and worthwhile.

How might we collect this kind of data on a population level?

People think of the quantified self as “this is me” but we can quickly scale up. Large-scale data sharing would allow us to focus on specific groups rather than the model we typically use, which is based off of population distribution. We could really flip research on its head and start the other way—with a focused segment rather than with everyone. When people start collecting data about themselves, they begin to understand and care about how policy affects their health, how their workplace environment affects their health, and so on in terms of how their personal health is connected to the bigger picture.

Would you say quantified self falls under prevention or treatment?

If I had to choose where to start, I would say prevention first because this is where you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck. But we’re seeing the biggest adoption with treatment—for example, people who have recently been diagnosed with a condition become invested in their own health through self-data collection. They become evangelists and advocates, and they often have a strong desire to share their methods with others.

What will need to happen to take the quantified self movement to the next level?

We need to try, fail, and learn. Instead of an ROI model, I’d like to see us focus on a “Return on Health” model. This is a very long-tail discussion—you’ll see the real results in the next 20-30 years.

For more on the topic of quantified self, see:

This post was originally published on the Social Marketing exCHANGE blog.

Social Media and Organizational Change

Blog Post, Published Writing

This paper was originally published for Museums and the Web 2011. It was co-authored by Dana Allen-Greil, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, USA; Susan Edwards and Jack Ludden, J. Paul Getty Trust, USA; and Eric Johnson, Monticello, USA. (See citation and Creative Commons information.)


Social media are altering how museums interact with the public. But how are they affecting the ways that museum professionals approach their jobs? How are large organizations dealing with new pressures for a more nimble, experimental approach to content creation, and a more personal level of engagement with staff? How do museums manage the ‘brand’ with so many people creating content, while also being flexible and bringing out the many voices in an institution? With the authors’ multiple perspectives, this paper highlights some of the ways that social media are changing the ways that staff communicate and work together, and addresses issues such as whether to distribute management of social media content across an organization or to centralize efforts; how to find tactics for educating and training staff about what social media are; and how social media can further the mission, set new expectations for current staffing positions held within the museum, and promote a cultural shift that embraces collaborative, agile ways of interacting with our peers and our audiences.

Keywords: social media, leadership, management, strategy, organizational structure

Podcast: O Say Can You Sing? YouTube Contest

Blog Post

The Smithsonian’s first YouTube contest was created to dispel the notion that history is boring and to engage people with the story of their flag and national anthem. After being closed for nearly 2 years of renovations, the museum was looking to make a splash with the debut of a state-of-the-art home exhibition for the Star-Spangled Banner. Partnering with USA WEEKEND for marketing muscle, we received over 800 eligible entries and thousands of people rated and commented on their favorite singers. The grand-prize winner performed at the museum and at the Orioles game in Baltimore on Flag Day.

This project won an American Association of Museums Gold MUSE Award for outstanding achievement in museum media in the category “Community.”

Listen to a podcast interview of me by Jonathan Finkelstein of LearningTimes for MuseumTimes.org.

Small Towns and Big Cities: How Museums Foster Community On-line

Blog Post, Published Writing

This paper was originally published for Museums and the Web 2010. (See citation and Creative Commons information.)


The early years of the Internet offered museums new possibilities for reaching broader audiences, and yet the anonymous character of most on-line interaction posed significant challenges for those who sought to foster a sense of community in the digital realm. In recent years, social media and other new tools have enabled museums to more successfully cultivate on-line relationships and even blur the lines between their physical and virtual communities. Borrowing terminology from German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, this paper uses the archetypal qualities inherent in traditional village life (Gemeinschaft) vs. life in big cities (Gesellschaft) as a framework for understanding museum approaches to on-line community. While the formally constrained (gesellschaft) expert-novice relationship that has so long been the paradigm for museums is still valued, we find compelling reasons to also explore the potential of gemeinschaft “whole person” interactions to change the nature of community relationships with museums. Using this framework, we review examples from the National Museum of American History and other museums using technology to foster community.

Twitter for Museums: Measuring, Analyzing, Reporting

Blog Post, Published Writing

The following was originally published as a chapter in the book, Twitter for Museums.

“Measuring, Analyzing, Reporting”

We’re still in the very early stages of defining success and determining best practices for social media measurement.1 If you’ve already dipped your toe in the Twitter water, you know that riding the swells can be exhilarating. But the dizzying pace and loose structure can also make you feel unanchored, aimless, adrift. An evaluation plan can help you set the course, steer the ship, and eventually earn your sea legs. (Inspiration for the maritime metaphors is courtesy of Twitter’s “failwhale.”)