The Hive

Spying on Yourself

Tools that mine your inbox, bank accounts, and Google searches.

Most self-tracking projects are doomed to fail. The diet. The flossing. The resolution to stop playing Fruit Ninja. I, for one, have a terrible memory. What’s worse is that I am married to someone with Rain Man­-like recall: You ask Susan what she was doing on this day last year, or five years ago, or 15 years ago, and she will at least have a rough idea. Sometimes she will tell you what pair of jeans she was wearing.

For a long time, I resolved to be better about recording things. I bought many notebooks. I tried many apps. Then I got an iPhone and, because it was easy, I started taking lots of pictures. The photos were automatically stamped with date and time, and at some point the phone started keeping track of their location, too. I still don’t keep any sort of journal, but when I scroll through iPhoto I have a good visual record of my last three years. I also started taking photos of prescriptions, business cards, notes, and stuff that I knew I would half-forget, like the view from my office in the old Newsweek building:

The office

The point is that self-tracking isn’t inherently easy but that digital tools can nudge us to achieve more self-awareness. My iPhone has become the diary I never kept. In the case of photos, many people have taken the next step andmade their shots publicly available on sites such as Flickr and Picasa, which in turn allows these sites to become valuable visual repositories. I can see what the town of Agger in Denmark looks like, or check if my favorite expression, “The Bershon,” is gaining any worldwide traction.

These databases can also be subjected to a sophisticated level of analysis beyond search. The Microsoft application Photosynth takes, say, hundreds of photographs of the Sphinx and builds a detailed 3-D rendering. (Read Farhad Manjoo’s review in Slate.) Even more impressive is how Eric Fisher took the geo-location data from Picasa and Flickr shots and created maps of cities that indicated where tourists took pictures compared to where locals did. In New York City, one of the few places where the two groups overlap are at Yankees and Mets games.The outer boroughs are still surprisingly tourist-photo free.

My iPhone started me thinking of other easy ways to track my data. Where is the low-hanging fruit? A couple of years ago I gave Google permission to record my Web history and then just let it cycle in the background. Recently, I looked at the history, and it was like finding a dead mouse inside the couch. My No. 1 searched-for term was, of course, “Michael Agger” followed closely by “desktop tower defense.” But what surprised me was the consistency of peak times that I was searching on Google: 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. The searches at the 11 a.m. time were work-related but 4 p.m. was a wasteland of SenorGif, Buzzfeed, and YouTube “versus” videos. The data are telling me that when I’m flagging in the afternoon, I’d be better off taking a walk.(Google, of course, is the supreme data collector, endlessly calibrating all of our searches to anticipate our information desires.)

Another easy step to take is in the realm of finance. My credit card companies keep very good track of me; so does my bank. I combined all of my accounts at Mint and, voila, I suddenly had a very accurate record of how much I spent each month and how much I earned. Mint also breaks down your spending by category, which is helpful in setting up a realistic budget. (The amount of money that I spend on lunch is frightening. I now believe all those tales about how brown bagging can save you $3,000 a year.)

Mint also lets you compare your spending to other users in your city, but in my case it was too general to be of much use. It’s not hard to see the “social” and “sharing” possibilities here, however, the ego issue givesone pause: “I wonder how I stack up against males my age with my education level and working in my same profession… ” Not sure I want to know that.

Video: Reviews of Rescue Time and Other Spyware Programs

Another thing in your life that’s keeping tabs on you is your e-mail client. I’ve written about the company Cataphora before: Among other things, the company analyzes corporate e-mail to determine hierarchies and the real paths of communication within an organization. Now they’ve developed an app called Digital Mirror that will break down your own electronic habits in similar fashion. If you use Outlook, you’re in for a ride. (Mac and Gmail versions are in the works.)

My own Digital Mirror revealed basics that I had previously intuited, such as whom I corresponded with most regularly. I enjoyed noting how collaborators would flare up in my Inbox and then kind of burn down to an ember and then come roaring back again in remarkably consistent patterns. There were not a lot of huge surprises in store, but my mirror did tell me the most prominent “buck-passers” in my orbit—and pointed out that I am one of the chief offenders in this department. I suppose I’ve sent one too many e-mails with the words: “Thoughts on this?”I made a note-to-self to homebrew more “thoughts.”

The designers and programmers at Cataphora are adding something to Digital Mirror that may stare back a little too intently: the “Love Life” view. It examines e-mail, IM, Facebook, and the good old phone for romantic language and points of contact. Here’s a sneak preview:

Screen grab from Love Life

Online as in offline, the data shows that we are creatures of romantic habit. Is it depressing to know where your exciting new relationship with the cute boy in marketing is currently plotted on the curve? Or, does knowing where things stand allow you to take steps that will alter your typical pattern? Alas, there are some questions that data will never answer. For that, there is therapy.

P.S. Don’t forget, we’re looking for your ideas about new ways to gather and analyze data that are useful, surprising, or simply fun. Thanks for all the great proposals so far. Next, I’ll take a closer look at data in the realm of personal health and fitness.