Making sense of the datastreams of my life

For a moment, looking at the data, I was beginning to conclude that my year had been a miserable failure.

I went into this year with a “Big Data” mentality — boundless enthusiasm to track as much of my life as humanly possible, with blind faith that all of these new data points and pretty dashboards would reveal fresh insights about how I live my life that would make my days on earth even better.  

I could lie and tell you that I went into this year with all kinds of clear goals that could easily be quantified or numerically tracked. But that’s precisely where I went wrong. Sure, there were plenty of things I wanted to make happen this year, and many other good and bad things that I could never have planned for. That’s life.

Few if any of the things (or experiences) that I wanted for 2012 could easily be monitored by a Fuel Band or Gmail meter. Which is why today I find myself sharing a seat with many a misguided digital director who, tracking only vanity metrics, finds himself crowing about how many page views or retweets he scored but knowing very little about how his work (or data) rolls up to anything that really matters. 

For example, isn’t it great that I put nearly 800 miles on my bike this year? Traveled to 32 cities in 8 countries? Well, I don’t know. Is it? (Cycling and travel destinations unrelated, but that would have been cool.)

I love cycling, so anything greater than 0 miles should mean that I spent at least a portion of my year doing something I love — 49 hours and 55 minutes to be precise, if Strava is to be believed. 

But the data doesn’t say anything about that epic loop Savage and I did in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom over the summer — chasing storms, cows, dirt roads, and our own physical limits. Nor does it capture the satisfaction of being submerged in Lake Anna moments after unclipping from a lake loop with Jake. And what about the tourists standing next to their cars atop Cadillac Mountain, begging Dave and me to explain how we got up there. Or the pride of completing my first metric century on West Virginia’s country roads.

Those are the datapoints I want to see at the end of a well-lived and hard-faught year. And they’re well within the realm of technology to deliver. New apps like and are already helping us remember what we did one or two years ago, so I can easily imagine similar tools for helping us surface the qualitative highlights of our year along with all the numbers. 

If I were training for something, then clearly some of these numbers would really matter in helping me track gradual progress toward milestones. But even without a race in sight, the Nike apps try to nudge me toward some kind of goals so that all this tracking they’re doing for me adds up to something  relevant. The Fuel band wants to keep me in a constant state of motion for as many days in a row as possible — and will offer me any flavor of goal and lots of reinforcement to make that happen. (I’ve taken 1.7M steps this year since June, for the record.)  

Nike+ has a famous person acknowledge me every time I beat my previous running time or distance, but it’s also pushing me to set some goals for how often I’ll run each week or month to prevent from leading me down another road of meaningless data. The latest message even comes with a generous dose of friendly peer pressure: “Green level runners set a goal of 4 runs per week. Think you can handle it?” If I followed their lead, then maybe I’d know if i should be celebrating or crying over the 100.28 miles I pounded out since I started tracking in April. 

Before I give up on data for the sake of data, there’s one place where quantitative data alone may be useful — fact-checking our unreliable brains and, therefore, calibrating our perception of the worldDo you feel like you’re more diligent in responding to emails than everyone else? Gmail Meter‘s data on your emailing behavior would gladly tell you if you’re actually obsessive or just think you are. 

I knew I was traveling a ton this year, mostly all for work, and at a level that was starting to seem unsustainable. I estimated that I was gone nearly 1/3 of the time and averaging 2 trips per month. My reliable travel buddy TripIt tells me that I was, indeed, on the road 26 times in 2012, but away 41% of the year, which means that I actually underestimated how much I was traveling. Now I can use this intel to moderate my travel and set some targets for next year. 

But again, none of this travel data surfaces the indelible experience of smashing my head into a stone arch along the Great Wall of China. (Thank you very much, Qing Dynasty.)

Fortunately, much of this is changing. The various tools available for social media analytics (TwitterCounter, Crowdbooster, and the like) increasingly seem more geared to providing us with useful insights rather than simply summarizing our volume of activity: what are the best times of day to tweet to maximize exposure? which filters tend to correlate with the most likes on my instagram photos? etc. (check out, very cool)

I’m an incredibly fortunate guy, as you can probably tell from all of the above, and I’m luck to have had an incredible year — full of love, new experiences, struggles, luck, loss, and everything in between. But I wouldn’t have known that from the stats of my life.


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