Self-tracking citizenship

An excerpt from Chapter 5 of my new book  The Quantified Self: A Sociology of Self-Tracking.

Nafus and Sherman (2014: 1785) contend that self-tracking is an alternative data practice that is a form of soft resistance to algorithmic authority and to the harvesting of individuals’ personal data. They argue that self-tracking is nothing less than ‘a profoundly different way of knowing what data is, why it is important, who gets to interpret it [sic], and to what ends’. However the issue of gaining access to one’s data remains crucial to questions of data control and use. While a small minority of technically proficient self-trackers are able to devise their own digital technologies for self-tracking and thus exert full control over their personal information, the vast majority must rely on the commercialised products that are available and therefore lose control over where their data are stored and who is able to gain access.

For people who have chronic health conditions, for example, access to their data can be a crucial issue. A debate is continuing over the data that are collected by continuous blood glucose monitoring and whether the patients should have ready access to these data or only their doctors. As one person with diabetes contends on his blog, older self-care blood glucose-monitoring devices produce data that patients can view and act on immediately. Why should the information generated by the newer digitised continuous blood glucose monitors be available only to doctors, who review it some time later, when patients could benefit from seeing their data in real time? A similar issue arises in relation to the information that is collected on heart patients’ defibrillator implants. The data that are conveyed wirelessly to patients’ healthcare professionals cannot be easily accessed by the patients themselves. In jurisdictions such as the United States, the device developers are legally prohibited from allowing patients access to their data (see here).

There is recent evidence that the Quantified Self movement is becoming more interested in facilitating access to personal data for purposes beyond those of individuals. In a post on the Quantified Self website entitled ‘Access matters’, Gary Wolf comments that self-trackers have no legal access to their own data, which they may have collected for years. Nor is there an informal ethical consensus that supports developers in opening their archives to the people who have contributed their information. Wolf and others associated with the Quantified Self movement have begun to campaign for self-trackers to achieve greater access to the personal data that are presently sequestered in the cloud computing archives of developers. They argue for an approach that leads to the aggregation of self-tracked data in ways that will benefit other people than individual self-trackers themselves.

Some Quantified Self movement-affiliated groups have begun to experiment with ways in which self-tracking can be used for community participation and development. Members of the St Louis Quantified Self meeting group, for example, have worked on developing a context-specific app that allows people to input their moods and identify how certain spatial locations within a community affect emotional responses. They are also developing a Personal Environment Tracker that would allow St Louis citizens to monitor their own environmental impact and that of the community in which they live.

The Quantified Self Lab, the technical arm of the Quantified Self mvement, has also announced that it is becoming involved with citizen science initiatives in collaboration with the US Environmental Protection Agency (see here). It has now joined with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an American philanthropic organisation focused on health issues, to work on improving people’s access to their personal data. Both groups are also collaborating with other partners on the Open Humans Network, which is aimed at facilitating the sharing of people’s details about their health and medical statuses as part of a participatory research initiative. Participants who join in this initiative are asked to upload the data that they have collected on themselves through self-tracking devices as well as any other digitised information about their bodies that they are able to offer for use in research studies. Part of the model that the Open Humans Network has adopted is that researchers agree to return to the participants themselves any new data that emerge from projects that use these participants’ information, and participants decide which of their data they allow others to access.

Beyond the Quantified Self movement, a number of initiatives have developed that incorporate the aggregation of self-tracked data with those of others, as part of projects designed to benefit both the individuals who have collected the data and the broader community. Citizen science, environmental activism, healthy cities and community development projects are examples of these types of communal self-tracking endeavours. These initiatives, sometimes referred to as ‘citizen sensing’ (Gabrys, 2014), are a form of crowdsourcing. They may involve the use of data that individuals collect on their local environs, such as air quality, traffic levels or crime rates, as well as on their own health indicators – or a combination of both. These data may be used in various ways. Sometimes they are simply part of collective projects undertaken at the behest of local agencies, but they may also be used in political efforts to challenge governmental policy and agitate for improved services or planning. The impetus may come from grassroots organisations or from governmental organisations; the latter construe it as a top-down initiative or as an encouragement towards community development.

Self-tracked data here become represented as a tool for promoting personal health and wellbeing at the same time as community and environmental development and sustainability. As these initiatives suggest, part of the ethical practice of self-tracking, at least for some practitioners, may involve the notion of contributing to a wider good as well as collecting data for one’s own purposes. Access to large data sets – rendering these data sets more ‘open’ and accessible to members of the public – becomes a mode of citizenship that is distributed between self, community and physical environment. This idea extends the entrepreneurial and responsible citizen ideal by incorporating expectations that people should not only collect their own, personal information for purposes of self-optimisation but should also contribute it to tailored, aggregated big data that will benefit many others, in a form of personal data philanthropy: self-tracking citizenship, in other words.


Gabrys, J. (2014) Programming environments: environmentality and citizen sensing in the smart city. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 32 (1), 30-48.

Nafus, D. and Sherman, J. (2014) This one does not go up to 11: the Quantified Self movement as an alternative big data practice. International Journal of Communication, 8 1785-1794.






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