For the past year, Nicholas Felton has tracked every conceivable aspect of his conversational life. Whom he talks to. How frequently and for how long. Which words they use and which topics they discuss. At what times, in what places.
The result of this incredible effort was published this week, the ninth installment in Felton’s 10-year data-tracking project. The Brooklyn-based designer has been doing this since 2005, tracking minute personal data and publishing it in beautiful, oddly intimate, annual reports.
Few of us will ever get this unusual vantage point on our lives, with all our arguments and e-mails and fleeting pleasantries logged and flattened into bar charts and graphs. But for Felton, who has spent the past decade logging everything from what time he drinks his daily coffee to where he goes with his girlfriend, that process has become something like a vocation. In addition to the annual reports (and Facebook’s Timeline, which he helped design), Felton is the co-founder of the apps Daytum and Reporter, both of which help users record their own personal data.
As Felton heads into his 10th and last report, we chatted by e-mail about his work, its impact on his life and some of the bigger questions around big data. This conversation has been lightly edited for style and space.
So, to start off — an obvious question. What’s your methodology for tracking this amazing flood of data? It seems like, at some point, tracking your life would necessarily become your life.
I really enjoy developing approaches for capturing novel data. For the past several years I’ve been pushing the boundaries of what is discernible about my behavior. In past years I’ve relied on technology, crowdsourcing and research, but sometimes the best solution is a lot of hard work. To capture all of my communication I knew that accessing email, SMS and Facebook messages would not require any extra effort, but documenting mail, conversations and phone calls would be a challenge.
I spent a month honing a set of questions and multiple choice answers to capture the routine aspects of my conversations and became very adept at recording a synopsis of my conversation after the fact. In general I could capture a short conversation like ordering a coffee in a number of seconds, while fluid situations like a wedding might require an hour to capture in proper detail.
On top of this process for conversations and phone calls I also kept a spreadsheet with all the details of mail that I sent and received. This process did not consume my life, but it was the most audacious habit I’ve adopted in service of this project.
Has your behavior changed because of the patterns you’ve tracked? What about because of the action of tracking the behavior?
I think that behavior change pivots on feedback, and this project does not deliver rapid feedback on my activities. On the other hand, the action of tracking my behavior exerts a strong force on my behavior, and I attempt to craft approaches that will bend it in beneficial directions. Knowing that I will share the outlines of my year has encouraged me to travel more and say yes to offers I might otherwise decline. This past year the approach helped me to become a better listener and to overcome my difficulty in remembering names.
What’s the big draw of self-quantification for you, personally? Does marking things down make them more meaningful?
The project evolved from experiments with travel journals and an impulse for closure at the end of the year. It’s evolved to include a drive to collect and explore what defines me, and to discern whether I am quantifiable. In practice, I have found working with data to be a great shorthand for collecting experiences, and aggregation a fascinating technique for gaining new perspectives that are unattainable when face to face with our daily routines.
This idea of personal data, and ownership of personal data, has become very politicized since you started the project. Has that changed the way you think about it at all?
I find data ownership to be a misnomer and think that data access is a better description of the situation. I believe that if you are a party to the creation of data you should have some form of access to it. Things get icky when data is being created without a person’s knowledge, or accessed by some entity that was not a participant in its creation. My opinion about personal data has not changed, but I am aware of many more ways in which it is being abused.
To what extent is your app Reporter — released earlier this year — inspired by your personal experience with data-tracking?
Reporter was initially developed as a tool for me to document 2012. I had long wanted a tool to assist me in randomly sampling my day, and I finally realized that it was not out of the question to commission an iPhone app for this purpose. Initially a friend built the app for me, and in 2013 we worked together to refine and expand the concepts in the app to work for a larger audience. Reporter is based on the idea that you need not capture everything to answer a question about your behavior. It can be enough to simply answer a few questions at random intervals each day and explore themes like mood or social context that are too daunting to capture on a continual basis.
Are there any long-term patterns that have surprised you over the past nine years? (I know you tweak what you track each year, so maybe that’s not a fair comparison.) What about just over the past year — any surprises?
It’s a tricky question because I change my focus each year… so I’ll have to wait for the 10-year compendium to offer concrete answers. I am nervous that the analysis will show me reading fewer books (probably in exchange for more Internet time), and will show that I travel more while taking less memorable trips. I haven’t been driven to change my behavior yet, but perhaps these documents will be a guide for how to retain my youth (or how to grow up) as I age.
Finally, and most ambiguously: Does it all amount to anything? Personally, for me, there’s something a little existentially frightening about seeing the details of my life mapped out in such detail like that — maybe, when it’s all summed up, it looks like a lot of … ephemera.
I generally find it comforting to see a year encapsulated in a report, and the knowledge that each little action all year amounts to something at the end makes each behavior, encounter and decision a little more purposeful.
For the record, this year’s report is meant to be somewhat frightening… understanding that a few algorithms and visualizations can reduce your data into such a stark image is meant to spark serious questions about the kind of future we want.