Quantified Humanity

Guest Author
Oct. 04 2013, 10:00AM EDT

This guest post comes from Lorinda Brandon, Director, Customer Community at Mashery. You can follow her on Twitter or at Mashery.

This week’s Business of APIs conference in New York City brought together an agenda that highlighted some of the biggest trendsetters in the API industry today. As the industry continues to mature, trends are beginning to emerge as people push the boundaries of our new connected capabilities. What’s interesting to observe is how people are using these capabilities – with so much data at our fingertips, it seems we continue to explore the age-old question of what it means to be human.

At one end of the spectrum is the concept of the quantified self. A term originally coined by Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf, the quantified self refers to the data collected by self-trackers. These practitioners use these metrics to track the experience of being human at the micro level in order to better understand it from the macro level. From blood pressure to REM activity to calories consumed, the ability to connect a variety of data about the experience of being human allows an individual to know themselves physically in a way we never could before. Of course, we’re still at the early stages where just the mere ability to do this fascinates us. But one has to wonder what the true application of this capability will be and where it will lead us as humans.

As self-trackers gather more data about their mechanical selves over time, they can come to some greater realizations about who they are physically and how they respond to various types of situations. Perhaps this is the new face of philosophy, an extension of the question “who am I” in an effort to better understand “why am I”. It seems to be human nature to constantly question the nature of being human.

At this year’s BAPI conference in New York City, there were several references to the quantified self movement as the conference kicked off, most likely because one of the first speakers was Naveen Selvadurai, whose personal API was a big conversation in the API world a few months ago. Naveen not only follows the quantified self movement, he has taken it to a new level by creating an open API so we can all follow along as he walks, sleeps, and works. While I’m an avid Foursquare user, I don’t know Naveen personally so am unlikely to need to know more about his daily activity than my own. But… he certainly captured the imagination of geeks everywhere with his API and his followers keep track of his daily mechanics in droves.

It seems to me that this kind of data is really only valuable when used in a larger context.  Like most people reading this, I live in a “first world” environment – I worry about calories because I eat too many, not because I wonder when I will eat again; I monitor my exercise to make sure I don’t forget to walk away from my flat screen TV and expensive laptop, not because I am over-exerting in comparison to my calorie intake. In the privileged world in which I live, quantified self data at the individual level is really only interesting as a hobby (or, in some people’s cases, an obsession). But imagine if we had this kind of quantification for a large population from various walks of life – what could we learn about disease, pollution, and genetics?

Image Credit: Samasource

On the other end of the spectrum was another speaker at BAPI this year, Leila Janah. She is using this new connected world to bring medical care and financial security to some of the farthest reaches of the planet. Her first endeavor, Samasource, allows people in impoverished areas to pick up technical work for some of the largest global companies, like Google and Wal-Mart, using a model she refers to as Microwork. While saving those companies money, Samasource brings an income to the people who need it most.

While getting this organization up and running, Leila was struck by the condition of the medical facilities in some of these areas and the plight of people who cannot afford, or have access to, routine medical treatments. She set her sights on improving this as well. Using a model already devised by organizations like donorschoose.org and kickstarter.com, she came up with Samahope, whose mission is to manage donations for much-needed medical treatments for those who can’t afford it. For the price of an activity monitor for my quantified self, I can save a life in Africa. Hmmm…how to choose?

These discussions book-ended a day of API discussions and got me to thinking. What if we took quantified self up a level to quantified humanity and quantified those people who really need it? Imagine using all the quantified self data to monitor people in impoverished hospitals and feeding the data back to doctors world-wide via APIs like Naveen’s Personal API; tapping into the expertise and funding of the world’s best medical minds and facilities to diagnose and recommend treatment for those people who need it most but have no access to it.

It seems like we are on the cusp right now of being able to use technology to not only better understand ourselves as human beings but also help each other as human beings. Perhaps now we really can connect technology and humanity cheaply, easily, quickly…and make the API boom more than just an interesting moment in technology.

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