Personal Tracking as Lived Informatics

As part of my CHI 2014 paper reading series, today I read “Personal Tracking as Lived Informatics” by Rooksby et al. from the University of Glasgow in the UK. They offer a compelling take on activity tracking. It is a good read, even if a bit contradictory at times, in my opinion.

Idea: Understand people’s practices and relationships with activity tracking devices and personal tracking in everyday life. This paper claims that personal tracking has been studied very narrowly so far, where devices serve as nothing more than activity detectors or as part of interventions.

Approach: Unstructured and follow up interviews with 22 participants.

Findings: Tracking is social (but not in the ’share on Twitter/Facebook’ social, there are different styles of tracking (directive, documentary, diagnostic, reward-based, gadget-based), multiple trackers are used, tracking information used for meeting daily or short-term goals.

Notes: People chose different metrics to examine out of the devices they used, data collected and analyzed for short-term use (people not concerned about saving the data), tracking punctuated memorable life experiences (e.g., finishing a marathon), self-esteem. Idea that tracking is actually almost always prospective, since it’s about where one’s heading (e.g., losing weight, training for a marathon.

Feedback for Improving Medication Taking

Over the next couple of weeks I will be writing several posts about CHI 2014 papers that caught my eye. I will format my summaries in 4 short paragraphs: Idea, Approach, Study, Notes. This structure will fit most papers I think. I will start with a paper by Matthew Lee and Anind Dey titled “Real-Time Feedback for Improving Medication Taking“. As I understand it, this is Matt’s PhD work at CMU under Anind. Matt is now at Phillips Research.

Idea: Study the effect of an instrumented pillbox and ambient display providing real-time feedback on medication taking. Research questions: (1) does real-time feedback improve consistency of medication taking?, (2) does real-time feedback improve self-efficacy for medication taking?, and (3) do medication taking behaviors change when removing real-time feedback after long-tern use?

Approach: Added various sensors and communication capabilities to a pill-box. Activity uploaded to server, projected back onto a visualization on a tablet that participants kept around the house.

Study: Longitudinal study with 12 people over 10 months. Participants divided in control, feedback groups. Two months for baseline, no feedback for both groups. After 6 months, real-time feedback was removed from feedback group.

Notes: The real-time feedback improved medication-taking behaviors and self-efficacy, but when it was removed after long-term use, performance was not sustained.

Disasters in Personal Informatics Ubicomp Workshop

Together with Jon Froehlich, Jakob Eg Larsen and Matthew Kay, I am organizing a Ubicomp workshop later this year. The theme: disasters in personal informatics. Here is a synopsis of what we are trying to accomplish:

In this workshop, our goal is to uncover, analyze, discuss, and learn from the failures of PI and QS research—failures that are most often not captured or surfaced in traditional publications because of embarrassment, perceived irrelevance, or simply lack of space. We want to provide an explicit forum to share stories of failure, perhaps even entire lines of research that did not succeed, in order to synthesize lessons learned and help progress the PI research community forward.

More details can be found on the official workshop web site. Please considering submitting – I believe this will be a rewarding experience for all who are working in the Personal Informatics space.

QS Public Health Symposium



Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Quantified-Self Public Health Symposium organized at UCSD by Bryan Sivak (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), Larry Smarr (Calit2 and ), and Gary Wolf (Quantified Self Labs). The intent of the one-day event was to provide a conducive environment for researchers, policy makers and developers of QS-type tools to discuss issues around data and its potential for use in public health. Many attendees such as Susannah Fox have written about the highlights of the day from their perspective. Here are my notes:

At the beginning of the day, Larry Smarr said he believes this is the “year of scale” when it comes to personal health informatics. Stephen Downs (Robert Wood Foundation) reiterated this point with a remark about our “rapidly expanding oceans of personal health data” and expanded on how RWJ Foundation has identified that a cultural change is needed around the value of health in society. Gary Wolf pointed out the uniqueness of the researchers involved in QS, ranging from public health epidemiologists and CS/HCI types, and also claimed that we are at “the beginning of a new program in the human sciences”, which I very much agree. Susannah Fox from the Pew Research Center made a number of excellent points based on the data she has been collecting and studying. When it comes to self-quantification, do “people want the unforgiving bright light of numbers in front of them”?, she asked. Fox also talked about how it is important to respect cultural rituals.

Brian Sivak was one of the major forces in the event. It was a pleasure to see someone from a government agency be so forward-thinking about the opportunities in this field. He discussed a number of topics, from areas he considers critical (e.g., data ownership, privacy and standards) to the possibility of a broad public health campaign around activity tracking. He also introduced the theme of sharing documents such as terms of service and privacy policy agreements amongst tool developers to facilitate the exchange of personal health data.

Later in the day, in a session reserved for “toolmakers”, Anne Wright from Fluxtream discussed how personal health data should be as portable as personal financial data, where one can download documents from banks and upload them to tools such as Mint and Quicken. In terms of visualizing and making sense of data, she mentioned the need for different types of interfaces at different levels (e.g., personal dashboards versus deep history introspection). Margareth McKenna from Runkeeper brought with her a number of research questions that are difficult to answer even in light of large amounts of data, such as what happens when people are not logging their exercise and activities (“sensors can only capture so much”). She also emphasized the need to disseminate tools to everyone, echoing others during the day who talked about the “digital health divide”. Andy Hickl from A.R.O. presented the “11-week problem”, at which point self-tracking devices go to the drawer. In other words, “what should we care?”, or how can we make self-tracking data meaningful? At the end of the session, Gary Wolf came back and proposed a research toolkit that could be shared within the community.

In one of the sessions focused on study designs, a highlight for me was Eric Hekler, a behavior psychologist and deep thinker around behavior change. He discussed how he lost faith in randomized clinical trials and how we should be asking people what they truly want from data and devices. He also made the point that we should support people to come up with their own interventions and find out ways to “get more functional life years”.

To me, the high-point of the day was a panel with Larry Smarr and Lee Hood. Hood, whose work has revolutionized biology and genetics, is leading a longitudinal, Framingham-like study with the goal of better understanding how digital technologies and ongoing self-tracking can be leveraged to quantify what it means to be healthy. Another goal of the study is to look at the progression of disease, as observed by these devices. Smarr, one of the most recognized self-trackers in the Quantified-Self movement today, started his tracking journey to understand his own personal health issues, in a way doctors could not, or were simply unwilling to listen.

In addition to the plenary talks and discussions, the day was filled with coffee breaks, where I had the chance to chat and exchange ideas with many researchers and developers, such as Kevin Patrick from UCSD and Mike Lee, who leads MyFitnessPal. Overall, a great day in the campus of UCSD.


Hello 2014

A new year is upon us, hello 2014. This is the time of the year when I look back and wonder how 12 months went by so quickly. I am sure I am not alone. The last couple of months of 2013 were particularly busy. In addition to personal trips during the holidays, I also had the opportunity to attend the 2013 SenseCam and Pervasive Imaging Conference in San Diego, CA.

This was a small conference focused primarily on applications of first-person point-of-view images. I presented our paper titled “Feasibility of Identifying Eating Moments from First-Person Images Leveraging Human Computation”, which can be downloaded here. Our work was very well received and I had the opportunity to meet several researchers at UCSD and beyond who are taking health and behavior assessment to a whole new level thanks to wearable cameras.

Next on the agenda are additional studies related to my thesis work and my thesis proposal, which will probably take place at the end of January. As @dgmacarthur wrote on Twitter:

“May 2014 bring you clean data, well-documented code, large and deeply phenotyped samples, and a clear path to clinical translation”

Video of Ubicomp 2013 Talk

Thanks to my friend and fellow graduate student Gabriel Reyes, here is my talk at Ubicomp in Zurich a few weeks ago. I presented our paper titled “Technological Approaches for Addressing Privacy Concerns When Recognizing Eating Behaviors with Wearable Cameras”. You can download the paper here. Gabriel recorded this video with his Google Glass. Headphones recommended.

Ubicomp, Doctoral School and CHI

Academically and intellectually, September was the busiest month of the year for me, and the weeks leading up to it were quite intense as well. In light of conference travels, presentations and deadlines, there weren’t too many hours left in the day. Luckily all activities were tremendously exciting.


From September 8th to the 12th, I attended the Ubicomp 2013 conference in Zurich. I participated in the Doctoral School and also presented a paper on the last day of the conference. This year ISWC (International Symposium on Wearable Computers) was co-located with Ubicomp and I think this was a great move, since there was an obvious and productive overlap between both conferences. I should also say that the Ubicomp and Pervasive conferences merged, and this year we had the first joint conference between these two events, which is now officially called the 2013 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing. The 4-track conference was very well attended with 700 people registering. More on Ubicomp 2013 in future posts.


Once back in Atlanta from Zurich, there was nothing but long hours and lots of work in preparation for a submission to CHI, whose Paper & Notes deadline was September 18th. At the end of the day we felt that we submitted a strong paper to be considered for the CHI 2014 program.

ISTC-PC Summer 2013 Retreat

One of the sponsors of my research at Georgia Tech is Intel. My group, the Ubicomp group, is a member of the Intel Science and Technology Center for Pervasive Computing (ISTC-PC), and together with other academic institutions and researchers, we explore how sensing and computing technologies are changing the landscape of a variety of domains, such as health and wellbeing.

Every year, Intel organizes a retreat event with all ISTC-PC members. This year we all traveled to Suncadia, about one hour east of Seattle for 2 days of face-to-face conversation. Some of the topics covered included the future of sensing, privacy & security, activity recognition and behavior journaling.


It was a very productive event with good discussions and the opportunity to meet many friends in the research community. And the location was truly spectacular.

HCIC 2013

As I write this I am on my way back from the HCIC workshop, a summercamp-style gathering of leading HCI researchers that has been led and organized by Gary and Judy Olson for many years. One of the unique aspects of HCIC is that it is more than a conference – it is actually an organization and only invited members can attend the three-day workshop. Georgia Tech is a member, and this year I was one of the lucky few students selected to join the group at Asilomar, near Monterey, CA.


The theme this year was “data, data, data” and all the sessions were about the impact of Big Data. Privacy, theory, metrics, and visualization were just some of the topics covered. Eric Brill from eBay Research kicked off the event with a talk on how “oodles” of data allow for virtually free UX experimentation and a new way of thinking when it comes to building data models and inference algorithms. He urged us to think about ways to enrich the input “signal” beyond clicking streams since there is so much emotion and passion behind user actions.

There were too many highlights to count over the 3 days of the workshop. Personally, I very much enjoyed the crowdsourcing and information visualization talks. Some important privacy and ethical issues were discussed, and the role of theory in HCI was a recurring theme. Perhaps my favorite “big idea” from the workshop was the notion of combining techniques from machine learning with qualitative approaches so that we can discover not only the latent structure in the data, but the meaningful latent structure in the data. This was articulated by Jim Herbsleb and Rogerio de Paula, who pointed out Ken Anderson’s work on ethno-mining.


HCIC, thanks for the beautiful venue, intellectual insights, and quality time with new and old friends.

CHI2013 Review

It’s been about a week since I got back from Paris after attending CHI. This was the most productive CHI for me personally, which I attribute in large part to the Personal Informatics workshop I attended.


The workshop, which took place on Saturday and Sunday before the conference began, was an opportunity to spend time and exchange ideas with a great group of folks. Thanks to Ian Li, Jon Froehlich, Jakob Eg Larsen, Catherine Grevet and Ernesto Ramirez for putting it together. It required lots of work to organize it, since it was set-up as a two-day hackathon. All the effort paid off nicely in my opinion. The interesting question now is how to make the Personal Informatics community within CHI grow, since it has outgrown the workshop format.

Now on to the main conference. With 10+ tracks, it is always a challenge to navigate CHI. Here’s a timelapse of my day 1 at the conference:

I was able to attend some good/interesting presentations, such as:

Validating a Mobile Phone Application for the Everyday, Unobtrusive, Objective Measurement of Sleep, Lawson et al.

Designing Mobile Health Technology for Bipolar Disorder: A Field Trial of the MONARCA System, Bardram et al.

Footprint Tracker: Supporting Diary Studies with Lifelogging, Gouveia and Karapanos.

Mind the Theoretical Gap: Interpreting, Using, and Developing Behavioral Theory in HCI Research, Hekler et al.

NailDisplay: Bringing an Always Available Visual Display to Fingertips, 
Chao-Huai Su, Liwei Chan, Chien-Ting Weng, Rong-Hao Liang,
Kai-Yin Cheng, Bing-Yu Chen

Food Practices as Situated Action: Exploring and designing for everyday food practices with households. Rob Comber, Jettie Hoonhout, Aart T van Halteren, Paula Moynihan, Patrick Olivier

Not surprisingly I was particularly drawn to the health-focused talks, but there were some intriguing and inspiring topics of interest in many other sessions.

Thanks for the inspiration Paris. Next year, Toronto.