As I’m putting together the pieces of my ideal self-improvement app, I realize that data liberation is as obvious a feature as it is rare. This is really bad as the kind of data we discuss here always contain really private and useful information that we should be able to export as we please.
The only question being: to do what? Having a file with all your data that no other app can read doesn’t help much. Email, for instance, is easy: expect a title, one or many people it is addressed to and some content (I’m not sure that labels are ever exported). But there’s no such simple standards for food or sport habits.
This is disturbing. I think, as users, we should always require ways to get our data back, one way or the other. But there’s not much we can do regarding importing them. I don’t want to blame people creating apps or sites to not provide the latter as long as they are no way for them know that they’re dealing with consistent formats.
If you know of any project that aims at solving this question, please let me know.
Up to now, I’ve been very focused on ways to actively improve specific areas of our lifes. Solutions to understand our behaviors, analyze them, get feedback and take actions. But what about passive ways?
Take for instance traveling. I’m really good at planning but I tend to suck at executing. To give a real-life example: It happened to me to buy a plane ticket months in advance, only to go to the wrong airport when the day of flying had arrived. To my defense, I had taken a similar flight with the same company earlier and only checked the schedule, not the location. What a stupid mistake…
An application like Tripit would have solved this issue. What it does is simply to go into your emails, look around for flights, hotels or events and put everything together.
As I’m writing this post, I’m preparing for a short trip to London to attend 2 conferences. I have everything ready, tickets, bookings and all but I feel just better knowing that I’ll know where to check for any information I’ll need during that travel. It’s really how apps should work, all automated. I would never consider entering data manually unless I absolutely had to (because there’s no booking process for an event for instance).
One might argue that this doesn’t fundamentally improve my organization skills and that it’s just a workaround. I’m fine with it :)
An obvious element of tracking is the ability to measure something. Running can be defined by miles and speed, food by calories and vitamins, voice by Hertz and pace, and so forth. Now, what happens when you decide to track emotions, an area where there are no standards, no well-defined metrics and no agreement among users on what concepts really mean? Can we reliably define our mental state at any given point ? Can we be consistent over time?
It’s almost certain that the answer to both of those questions is “No”. If you’ve ever tried to rate your emotions, you know that they are hard to grasp and that being completely honest is really difficult. However, this might be one of the rare situations where standards don’t matter, as emotional states are not meant to be shared publicly or even with peers (it might be useful as part of therapy but this remains a personal use of data). I really don’t see a mainstream community of people going online with the main goal to share their emotional state of the past week.
Still, emotion tracking is fascinating. Emotions lie at the very core of our existence and seem a perfect area for self-improvement. It is not impossible that some startup will develop a technology that cracks this issue, finding a way to get users to measure and improve the way they feel. We’re not there yet.
I’ve tried Moodscope and T2 Mood Tracker. The first one has been an underwhelming experience (web-based and complex) whereas the second one, as it is mobile and quick to fill, felt better to me. Still, unless you really want data because of a mental condition, I wouldn’t recommend those tools. (That’s disappointing and it does make me sad)
It seems most users feel the same. Look at the rating in both the App Store and the Android market: most mood tracking apps get very mixed or even really poor reviews, T2 Mood Tracker being a notable exception.
The issue is to find an actionable reason to use these apps. Again, I understand their use for medical conditions, such as depression or bipolar disorder, but there must be a way to make them useful to other people too. It’s possible that mood tracking end up being based on other apps that tracks food, sport and stress and correlates the results of each with mood. For now, to look at the bright side of life, let’s say that mood tracking remains an opportunity waiting to be built right.
When you start being passionate about a topic, you know that sooner or later you’ll find people on the internet with similar interests. The question is only to know how big this group is, how active it is and what’s its general vibe.
So it didn’t come as much of a surprise when I stumbled upon Quantified Self, whose tagline is Self Knowledge Through Numbers. Sounds familiar?
Here’s a TED video on the topic. It starts with a somewhat scary sequence of numbers, which I think doesn’t represent well the rather nonintrusive and friendly approach to measures from the movement.
So my take on Quantified Self? It’s a fantastic community and you’ll find an impressive number of apps and information on their site. The only element that keeps me of being completely thrilled is the focus on numbers. I’m a huge data fan but numbers are only a mean to an end. I don’t care how many coffees I drink a day, how many times I get angry or how many miles I run unless there’s a goal in monitoring those actions. Statistics are awesome, they’re a great way of seeing the world but what really matters is what actions they trigger. I want to perceive a life philosophy behind tracking devices.
I think our tag lines: Self improvement through technology vs Self Knowledge through numbers sum up our differences. However, you’ll find that many apps discussed on the Quantified self site actually embrace a view of data tracking that focuses on interpretation and actions rather than raw numbers.
This is all work in progress and I’m happy I’ve found more people passionate by this space.
A few weeks into this technodidact project, I’m starting to see trends of what I expect from self-improvement technologies. So when last week I was given the opportunity to give a pitch about my company at the Dublin Web Summit, I chose to compare our first product to a Runkeeper for voice. There were many good reasons to do so but, the main one being that it made easy for everyone to understand that we monitor voice and track performance over time.
What Runkeeper has done for sport is really cool. Its impact however goes beyond the fitness world as I think it shows the future of self-improvement technologies better than any other apps I’ve seen.
Here are 4 features that RunKeeper has implemented early and that each self-improvement app needs:
Ubiquitous but mobile first
Longitudinal (ability to compare over time)
Privacy sensitive (Private/Peers/Public settings)
Real-time is key. We need to get immediate feedback on our actions, otherwise the app is not measuring the right element. If you’re looking to lose weights, technology should guide you into making the right choices right now, not only focus on the end result (like losing 5 pounds).
Mobile is everything. Mobile devices go where we go, at all time. Tablets or laptops certainly don’t. So to make sure that support is always available, core features should be available on mobile devices. Additional features can then be offered on different screens.
The ability to track performance over time is a no-brainer. We improve what we can measure consistently.
Privacy is probably the one most app builders get wrong. Default should be private and not even be posted in the cloud. It should stay on our mobiles, where data, if not completely safe, is fully under users control. This is a critical psychological factor and sharing as a default is wrong. The second choice of sharing should then be to a selected group of people, that we consider as peers or mentors. This is people who are going to really make a difference in our lives. Public sharing can then be used by those who want extra pressure or enjoy living in public. This would often be my choice but applications that want users to share publicly by default just don’t respect their customers.
Runkeeper does all of this perfectly, try it if you haven’t yet. They also keep adding interesting features, such as the ability to follow an activity live but this is not as crucial as the ground work they’ve done until now.
From now on, I’m going to review self-improvement technologies using those parameters, maybe adding more and definitely defining them better as time passes. If you see anything missing or a point being unclear, let me know ;)
In the next couple of posts, I want to define, or at least attempt to define, what self-improvement technologies can be applied to and what are their main features. Here by technologies, I mean tools and applications, things we can really interact with, and not thoughts or mental processes (some self-help books like to call them technologies: words are free to use by everybody in the way they want, so why not).
The need for such definitions is becoming increasingly clear to me as I’m encountering more and more technologies that I feel shouldn’t be covered in this blog, without being able to clearly state why. As a linguist by training, this exercise is fascinating. As a technologist, it is a bit baffling but no less exciting.
It is always easier to start by negative definitions. Self-improvement technologies are not “Ed Tech” (Education Technologies). They’re not meant to be used in a classroom and they’re definitely not meant to be used by teachers to help students, but by users themselves. Away from the classroom, they are not meant to be purely professional tools, as a precise set of skills that aim to be implemented in a narrow context. Finally, they’re not either meant to be primarily collaboration tools although they do have social aspects.
A video about what this blog is NOT about…
There are a few posts that would fall into this negative definition, like “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” or “Codecademy”. I would not include them under the “self-improvement technologies” umbrella but they’re still cool initiatives, worth knowing and part of a larger view of being a “Technodidact”.
So what could be considered as self-improvement technologies. My take at this stage is that, they have to be:
User-Centric (Design to solve a user need as an individual, not as part of a group)
Transversal (Have a broad impact on the user’s life)
Measurable (Clearly show how the user is progressing… or not)
Fields that are covered by this approach are either related to fitness/health, physical skills (accuracy, agility,…) or psychological/emotional abilities (goal settings, communication, …)
Such a definition is not set in stones and it would probably not meet Wikipedia’s standards yet… At this stage though, I feel it gives a better frame to this blog and its mission to explore, describe and foster self-improvement technologies. It’s easier to find what we want when we know what we’re looking for.
I can’t dance, I don’t enjoy it, I don’t need it, I don’t miss it. When I was 15 though, I was keenly aware that dancing was important. I almost took break dance lessons but finally decided to keep my money for gadgets and computer stuff (hello Atari).
Now, if Kinect would have been around in those days, I’m fairly sure I would have secretly bought Dance Central, hidden it somewhere nobody could find it and played it when I was home alone.
For those who don’t know the game, Dance Central is like Guitar Heroes for dancing. But whereas playing Guitar Heroes is not all that useful to play real-life instruments, Dance Central is the real deal. You can apply your new moves straight on the dancefloor, if you dare to.
What is also very interesting with Dance Central is that there’s a community around it sharing tips about how to beat the game. It’s not very clear to me however if their main goal is to learn dancing (as a conscious decision about this skill) or to score points. The distinction between real and virtual, gaming and learning seems very blurry here.
Whatever the motivation is, there’s something right about this game. I’ve witnessed a horde of children and teenagers lining up to go on stage at a mall where they were demoing the game. The level of excitement was insane. It was also clear that some parents would have played if this didn’t entail taking the turn of a 10-years old.
What’s certain is that I need to get a Kinect. Not to play Dance Central, I swear. Or maybe just a little bit.
I’m fascinated by the concept of Calming Technologies, technologies that monitor your attention level, performance and stress while performing a task. Not only is there a huge potential for such tools but they also are precisely aiming at self-improvement in a friendly, data-driven way.
It’s nothing new that researchers have been developing tools to track our stress level at work and the most obvious, non-intrusive place to track it used to be the mouse. I say “used to be” because the development of mobile technologies makes the mouse a less universal way of interacting with computers compared to a few years ago and I’m not sure that it remains the best place to put sensors.
Anyway, that what a team a Tokyo Metropolitan University have been presenting to the press a few days ago and it’s still pretty cool. It would be fun to have data about stress level by profession, for instance. Or by activity type. We might be in for some big surprises…
If you’re interested in the topic of calming technologies, you should have a look at CalmingTechnology.org. I guess there’s no need to explain why it’s a good place for it.
AI made easy, new ways of using video-based teaching
A bold experiment in distributed education, “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” will be offered free and online to students worldwide from October 10th to December 18th 2011.
That’s the (bold) statement welcoming you at the top of ai-class.com, a video-based class taught by 2 famous Google employees and scholars: Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig.
All the material of the first unit (that’s as far as I went because the class has just started) can be found on Youtube. It is however integrated on the site with quizzes that you take straight on the video. That’s cool and it makes the transition from content to questions very natural. Another nice particularity is that the most of the class is drawn or written down on a piece of paper without any other animation and with very little shots of the professors. See Unit 1 lesson 1 below:
Nice and simple: exactly what I like! It’s also good to know that the course has been divided in two:
An advanced track that is intended to be an undergraduate or early graduate level course, and you should plan on spending around ten hours a week or more on it. (argh!)
And a basic track for people interested in the material but who do not have time or would prefer not to do homework assignments and exams. All right, that would be me…
I haven’t spent a lot of time on the site yet but I feel definitely compelled to come back to know more about AI. Even more so that the level of the first unit was a bit too light and I’m looking forward to more substantial lectures.
What I’ll keep in mind, on top of AI basics, is that simple animations and interaction with the video seem to have solved a good chunk of my issues with online lectures, which I often tend to find infinitely boring. Good job :)
Serious Game for hiring or why I will never eat at Marriott’s again
The idea of using games to train or hire people is really appealing. Employees can understand what’s required from them, get ready for new challenges or work on fundamentals: opportunities seem limitless.
But sometimes, there’s a big, disappointing gap between a vision and reality. And to prove my point, it’s my pleasure to introduce to you My Marriott Hotel, a Facebook serious game that aims at directing people to Marriott’s jobs center. Only one of the six parts of the game have been released and the result so far is plain aweful. It’s like Farmville in a kitchen: it’s repetitive and it doesn’t require any creativity whatsoever.
Although I applaud the initiative and I’m all for trying and failing, the only result Marriott will achieve with this game is to make sure nobody will ever want to embrace a career in a hotel. People play Farmville to escape reality, I’m not sure they’ll be thrilled by the idea of being part of it. There’s nothing to learn there… But I still hope to find great examples of serious games.