Perils of quantification

New Year’s Resolution season is upon us again and with it, many of us will be setting goals that are tied to our behavior or self-improvement.  With a goal there should be a way to measure progress, and watching a number change can provide potent motivation.

That’s part of the basis for the quantified self movement, consisting of people who use self-tracking to collect data about how their bodies and minds work (we’ll debate duality another time), often for the purpose of understanding and optimization  This is introspection and self-disclosure taken to a new level.  Some use an artistic approach, like Buster Benson, who – among many other things – takes a picture of himself at the same time each day.  J. Paul Neeley, seen in this video from the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation Transform 2012 conference, has put a lot of thought into optimizing his happiness based on observations from self-tracking.  Others take a hardcore medical approach, tracking weight, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, sleep hours, caloric intake and balance, and other objective numbers.

Many of the methods used by quantified self practitioners could be found in a social science textbook, but they are applied to a sample size of one.  Some of the findings apply no further.  Other data, shared and aggregated, could lead to discoveries that improve the lives of many.  I’ve seen the movement described as little more than a herd of narcissists, but my opinion is that it’s a display of millennial attitudes of curiosity, openness, introspection, and embrace of technology (which are not limited to an age range, but worldview).  Perhaps it’s microanthropology or micropsychology as well.

That said, I was struck by a short essay by Jeff Wise on the last page of the November 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (produced by the energy drink company yet a fun, free read; see their website).  His piece, entitled “The Measure of a Man”  begins by talking about the difference between subjective methods of self-awareness, such as “I have trouble fitting into my clothes” and objective ones like “I weigh 233 pounds.”  Seeing the number on the scale go down to 232 provides immediate external positive reinforcement and a sense of control.  It’s strong motivation to keep moving that number in the preferred direction.

However, Wise points to the danger of focusing on a particular metric.  He compares it to the use of a district-wide test to measure student performance.  “The first year… their scores offer a rough measure of the overall quality of their education.  But in subsequent years, those scores will increasingly measure something else: Teachers’ ability to prepare their pupils for that particular exam.”  Applied to tracking weight, he warns that “what you measure becomes what you do, and what you do becomes who you are,” with the potential for eating disorders, substance abuse or neglecting other aspects of good health.

In reading blogs of the quantified self crowd, I’ve frequently seen this in confessions that the trackers have changed behavior to make one particular metric “look better”, often at the expense of others.  Even in our introspective attempts to understand human nature, we display it.

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Infectious homicide in Newark

New research from Michigan State confirms that homicide and infectious disease have similar patterns of spread.  The team applied public health tracking software and methods to analyze data about homicides in Newark, NJ between 1982 and 2008.

Principal researcher April Zeoli, an assistant professor of criminal justice, points out that this methodology could be applied in real time to help law enforcement be more proactive about addressing new “outbreaks”.  She also indicated that some areas remained free of homicides despite being surrounded by hot spots.  From the MSU press release:

“If we could discover why some of those communities are resistant,” Zeoli said, “we could work on increasing the resistance of our communities that are more susceptible to homicide.”

Sounds like time to call in the anthropologists.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic in China

If I were asked to guess a country where AIDS is exploding, China wouldn’t come immediately to mind, but it should.  There was an 8.6% increase in the number of AIDS-related deaths in China last year; of those that were reported and/or acknowledged.  The percentage of cases might appear low in a country with an enormous population, but the number of affected people is high: over 68,000 new cases of HIV/AIDS reported in the past year.

CNN: Chinese students show their hands painted to look like red ribbons during a World AIDS Day event on November 30.

CNN: Chinese students show their hands painted to look like red ribbons during a World AIDS Day event on November 30.

CNN provides an overview of the current situation in China, touching on the years that the government denied there was a problem and their current policies, in the article The price of blood: China faces HIV/AIDS epidemic.

For more information on the current state of global HIV/AIDS, the 2012 report from UNAIDS is full of interesting data and impressive infographics.