Programming the Quantified Self: APIs to Track Health

SXSW Interactive is probably best known now for its size. The event is spread through about half a dozen venues around downtown and greater Austin, Texas. And the parties that happen late into the night can be many Texas-sized blocks apart. It was a perfect place to track the activity--and inactivity--of a bunch of techies. Storing real-world data and making it accessible in the cloud is a growing trend, with a number of devices and APIs to facilitate it. Much of the focus so far has been on health, as it was at SXSW.

BodyMedia supplied me and several others an arm band. The unit tracks steps like a pedometer, as well as level of activity and sleep. The data that is collected can be viewed on their website, with an app or accessed via the BodyMedia API. That's where things get really interesting to me and why I was roped into this competition.

Tracking my data automatically is a beautiful thing. Being able to access and use that data however I want is even better. Plus, in a world where everything has an API, there's an opportunity for developers to connect it. So, it's not so much about me being able to program against my own data, but that it's a pre-requisite to someone else's app being able to use my data.

Several years ago I had a daily routine that involved doing some Yoga and a fitness assessment using Wii Fit, an exercise program based upon a scale-like "controller" for the Nintendo system. It was fun to see my activity and weight tracked over time, but Wii Fit was a silo for my data. Why couldn't I pair that with my pedometer or track my mood every day in a spreadsheet and make comparisons automatically? The technology is there. And now much of this is possible.

Earlier this month Stephen Wolfram wrote a much-shared post about the data he's been keeping about his own life over several decades. In the post he visualized his email by time of day since 1989. He also tracks his keystrokes, calendar events, time on the phone, and yes, step count. Many people found his post interesting, but it's fair to guess this Stephen Wolfram finds the data the most interesting. That is, tracking our own activity is a way for us to understand ourselves better.

There are a number of services that are leading the way giving anyone the ability to track data about themselves. Like BodyMedia, most focus on health activity.

Pedometers and Activity Trackers




RunKeeper is trying to bundle many of these together in what it calls the Health Graph API. The company has an extensive vision of what could be tracked and how it could be aggregated.

Similarly, the API aims to collect data from many places. It's coming from an agnostic direction, hoping to be a Platform for many types of devices.

Many tracking their own data of many different types call the practice "the quantified self." For this phenomenon to be automatic and pervasive will require APIs to exchange the data. The quantified self, like the Web, needs to be programmable.

As for that competition down at SXSW, BodyMedia handed out prizes in four categories: most active, most steps, least sleep and least activity. The laziest was Aubrey Sabala and the other three categories were easily won by Terry Boyd. Me? I was middle of the road. I averaged 6 hours of sleep, 13,000 steps and 2 hours of activity each day, something I couldn't have quantified if I hadn't tracked it.

Be sure to read the next Events article: 93 Events APIs: Eventful, Upcoming, Google Calendar