A great deal of big data comes from information related to people: behavior, preferences, relationships, medical and health monitoring. And much is being debated about the “big brother” aspects of big data, and how to ensure the privacy and security of the personal data being collected, analyzed and used by different organizations. Other concerns for big data and advanced analytics should include: is the data accurate, is the data really measuring anything, does the data help with insight? Big data by itself is often vague and fragmented, lacking context, relevance, correlation and corroboration.
Not everything that counts can be measured. Not everything that can be measured counts.
– Albert Einstein
The Quantified Self Movement
Many people knowingly contribute to big data sources through their online activities. A somewhat controversial set of individuals focused on the “data-driven life” or the Quantified Self is accumulating data through online apps connected to sensors monitoring physical – and sometimes emotional – aspects of their daily lives. Founded by Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf, the Quantified Self movement centers on self-monitoring as a means of personal awareness. The movement appeals mostly to fitness buffs – critics have dubbed the movement narcissistic and socially troubling.
Self-monitoring usually involves any number of personal sensor devices and online or smart phone apps. Some are already familiar, like the different devices that show calories burned during physical activity. Startups are producing a number of devices for “quantifying the self”, using different monitoring models and methods of interpreting the data collected. These self-monitoring devices will likely continue to evolve – we could see a future of chip implants that monitor everything we do. Right now, questions come to mind: are any of these devices producing much in terms of accurate quantified information and is any of it really useful?
GSR Devices – Truth or What?
Devices that monitor galvanic skin response (GSR) are a good example of self-monitoring devices that are also problematic. GSR devices measure the level of moisture on your skin in response to various situations. Capitalizing on the Quantifed Self movement, GSR devices are targeting the qualitative side of life (emotional well-being), while supposedly producing quantified data.
GSR has been around for quite some time: the much-discredited lie detector test is the most noted example. Like polygraph machines, personal GSR devices look to be scientific instruments. They do indeed measure levels of sweat and pulse rates quite accurately, but why those things occur is still ambiguous and continuously open to debate. The accumulated data of many years has not revealed any reliable patterns or correlations to absolutes of human behavior. The GSR response could be from telling a lie, or from the stress of taking a lie detector test, or from difficulty remembering what happened. The device doesn’t know the difference.
Quantitative without Qualitative is Only Part Human
The Quantitative Self movement justifies the notion of self-monitoring with the idea of optimizing oneself. The irony of course is that the notion of what is the optimal self is quite subjective. People are much more than quantified data, whether in optimal state or not. Physical well-being is a commendable goal, but even physical well-being is dependent on the qualitative: mental stimulation, emotional state, realization of desires.
“Optimizing” is problematic because it often has more to do with how something is put to use. Optimizing for a specific purpose means only certain parameters are chosen, at the expense of others. So optimizing a human can well mean that only a portion of the human condition or the human potential is emphasized.
Actions to optimize machines or digital technology are one thing – trying to optimize humans, either as individuals or a collective, is an uncertain endeavor filled with ambiguity, subjectivity and a certain amount of danger.