Hacking Happiness

Personal data and the quantified self – things you ought to know

By: Vicky Sargent, Director - Making a Difference With Data programme
Published: Monday, April 28, 2014 - 13:50 GMT Jump to Comments

In 'Hacking H(app)iness: Why Your Personal Data Counts and How Tracking it Can Change the World', John C Havens shows how apps can make you 'appy.

Writer (Guardian, Huffington Post), commentator (Cisco Live, SXSW), and social media consultant (Merck, Gillette, HP), John C Havens believes that apps can make you happy.

To be less reductive about it, he believes that apps can contribute to better physical and mental self-knowledge, and a more sophisticated understanding of economic and social value that will benefit individual well-being, and consequently, that of society at large.

So, all’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds, then?

Well, not exactly. There is work to do. The book spells out the dangers of carelessly sharing personal data, that allows others to misuse or profit from it (hello, Google), and also charts the negative impact of social media measures of value that are making us crazed and unhappy.

The author explains the genesis of his book in a story that will be familiar to any serious social media user. Checking his Klout score one day, and disappointed to find it lower than he thought it should be, his immediate reaction was to game the system by tweeting and posting on Facebook simply for the sake of increasing his influence, "whether or not I really had anything to say".

Then he stopped, realising the meaninglessness of "living my life in spurts long enough to get a good soundbite". Projecting into the future, he saw a place where individuals’ digital identities become a tangible currency and their worth is determined by algorithms. He saw a tiny population of individuals determining digital rankings and altering the way we viewed the world and others viewed us.

The result of this epiphany is a book setting out Havens’ prescription for taking back control of one’s own personal data and how this gets broadcast, sold and valued. But that is only part of it.

Havens explains how managing and using one’s own digitally generated data, (as opposed to letting others exploit or abuse it) is a move towards insightful living, informed choice, and accountability-based influence – in contrast to the popularity-based influence manifest by social media ‘likes’, Twitter followers and busy Facebook pages.

The well-being that will flow from this approach has a wider aspect than personal self-esteem. Just as popularity or net wealth approaches to evaluating an individual’s worth are flawed, so too is the pursuit of GDP growth as the be-all-and-end-all of government policies to improve national well-being.

Havens points to research studies that have demonstrated that once personal income reaches around $75,000 or equivalent, increasing it has no further impact on well-being.

It is the same with GDP growth - he quotes economist Jeffrey Sachs, who edited the first World Happiness Report for the UN, and concluded: "The US has had a three-time increase of GNP per capita since 1960, but the happiness needle hasn't budged".

The problem is what Robert Kennedy, in a 1968 speech credited as the beginning of the "beyond GDP" movement, referred to as ‘the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that affects us all.

"GDP", said Kennedy, "counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage  […] destruction of the redwood and loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl [...].

"On the other hand, it does not measure ‘the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play [...] wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning [...]’ and many other good things besides".

This may all seem a long way from our shiny, high-tech, wired world, but Havens makes the connections for us. He shows how new ways of measuring, recording and analysing our physical and mental states (aka ‘the quantified self’) offer new ways of intervening, earlier and better, to improve individual well being. Collectively, it is what some policy-makers are starting to call ‘gross national happiness’.

If the extent of your knowledge of the quantified self starts and stops at Fitbit, the book is a great source of information about apps that measure physical and mental wellbeing. This is along with services that allow users to combine multiple streams of data from such apps to create insights that suggest beneficial behaviour change.

The role of sensors in enabling monitoring of the routines of, say elderly relatives, allowing them independence and their carers peace of mind, is detailed, as is the use of sensors in the wider environment to enable better traffic flows, more efficient energy consumption and so on.

What new technologies like augmented reality, augmented memory and facial recognition technology can do with data, delivered via devices like Google Glass, is also well covered, and it makes scary reading.

As Havens says of the data we’ve all allowed Facebook to collect: "While the idea of crowd-sourcing users to stay in touch with and tag friends may or may not be of concern to you, what will be upsetting is when strangers can access photos and data [about you] instantly, by simply looking at you in public".

Even scarier is the idea of employers collecting data about their employees’ physical and mental health. Of course, the idea of boosting productivity by observing workers and manipulating the workplace environment is nothing new, but having the data to allow interventions on the basis of an employee’s sleep patterns or emotional state is something altogether different - a Brave New World which will make many of us feel hugely uncomfortable.

I really recommend everyone reads this book. If you haven’t spent much time thinking about your personal data, what you can do with it, and even more importantly, what might be done with it, now definitely is the time to start.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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