The Unquantified Self

I seem to be an early adopter, and by extension, an early un-adopter. I started using a high-end pedometer every single day about 10 years ago, long before the current activity tracker craze. I started off with fancy Omron USB pedometers and wore 2 Fitbits to shreds before losing the third one.

I responded incredibly well to tracking and monitoring. Too well, in fact.

For me, activity trackers prompted obsessive behavior, especially the Fitbit, since it permitted editing data for better accuracy. For awhile, I also (manually) tracked several other health-related covariates until I realized how much of an unnecessary, emotionally unhealthy, and ultimately useless data-generation burden I was putting on myself. It had become yet another stressor and told me nothing new. When I switched to the Withings Pulse, I couldn’t edit my data, so I had to stop taking it so seriously. That was a real relief.

I kept using the Pulse for a couple years but eventually it was solely because I got into birding and I’m extremely anal about data quality (it runs in the family, seriously).

But after 8+ years of wearing an activity tracker, the extent of my use case had shriveled to wearing it a wristwatch and recording distances traveled while birding.

Soon that stopped being adequate reason for constant self-surveillance. The privacy issues were not the main reason I stopped wearing my activity tracker last year.

I came to the conclusion that quantifying myself was unkind to myself. I am a whole person, not a bag of numbers, and boiling my day down to a couple of statistics fooled me into thinking that they were somehow meaningful or important. Not to mention promoting even more self-centered attitudes that weren’t socially productive.

For me, the gamified interfaces were a further insult to my sense of agency. They didn’t empower me; they enslaved me. I told myself otherwise for years, but the reality is that I was willing to use that data as warrant to treat myself more harshly and judgmentally than I would treat any other human being. That’s a no-win situation.

Initially, it seemed useful, but after a few years, the data stopped telling me anything new and I stopped trying to use it for self-improvement. A few years later, I no longer even paid attention to the data because when I did, it made me feel bad. I just wore the device out of habit, and then out of my devotion to generating top-quality bird data.

I stopped wearing it overnight. There was zero value to the sleep data andI rediscovered a strong preference to sleep unencumbered without a digital device on my wrist; I also kicked my phone out of bed. I found delicious contentment in settling into an electronics-free bed. All I was doing was starting to draw boundaries: no more technology in bed because that’s not what a bed is for. I don’t even take my phone into the bedroom at all anymore, because that’s not what the bedroom is for. This is a basic principle of good sleep hygiene: reserve the bedroom for its limited intended uses. When I was a kid, no one ever would have imagined having a phone in the bed.

Then I stopped putting the activity tracker back on in the morning. My life didn’t change at all, except I no longer had an ugly, uncomfortable lump of black silicone and plastic strapped to my wrist. I forgot I even had the silly thing lying around.

Months later, I don’t miss it. Not even a tiny bit.

Instead, I feel like I’ve regained a speck of privacy and humanity. The more that my life is distilled into numbers like H-indexes and citation counts, the more value I place on the freedom to be unquantified.

“Citizen Science in Context” at 4S2015

Attending the annual meeting of 4S (the Society for the Social Studies of Science) in Denver this week has been lovely. It’s a delight to reconnect with colleagues across diverse spaces and make new acquaintances, all the while talking about science.

In the last 2 days alone, I’ve discussed killer robots, citizenship in citizen science, scientific conference cultures, the ups and downs of academia, the Federal Toolkit, and how PCS algorithms are invisibly affecting scientific careers by pre-assigning the wrong people to reviewers based on vocabulary problems.

Below I’ve posted my minimally-edited session notes from November 13’s session on Citizen Science in Context. Enjoy?


From the citizens’ point of view: Small scale and locally anchored models of citizen science
Lorna Heaton, Florence Millerand, Patricia Dias da Silva

Background focusing on large-scale growth of citizen science, usual themes around potential for exploitation. Sees smaller, locally anchored models as productive of new opportunities for meaningful engagement.

Alerta Ambiental: reporting around land-based activities for legal action, and environmental monitoring.

ONEM: species observations in France, basic wiki-based observation form for species of interest. Participant benefit in awareness of local habitat.

Flora Quebeca: knowledge exchange on Quebecois flowering species. Initial concerns around rare species harvesting. Discussions on Facebook around photos of rare species. Lots of learning via moderation. They provide ID keys, quizzes, etc.

Engagement that is specific to localized projects, distinct from larger-scale (so-called…) “decontextualized” projects. Tech mediation but strong local situation around sense of place. Shapes how knowledge is produced. Online and offline interactions are interrelated. Local citizen science supports understanding world nearby, public engagement beyond the local, and tech mediation that complements colocated participation and interaction. Sees online as potentially valuable for inclusion, learning, empowerment.

Q about how it’s science, not just activity.

A: Some of the data were used by researchers.


Citizen Science and Science Citizenship: same words, different meanings?

Alan Irwin

Points to development of ECSA, Fondation Science Citoyennes, explosion of growth. Questions around semantics of the terminology.

Agenda of European Environment Agency is dramatically different from Zooniverse. Many different meanings, term with interesting ability to capture attention.

He was at CSA 2015. Contrast in meanings of term used there among 600 participants were interesting. Highlights Chris Filardi’s talk: “they picked me up and put me inside their questioning community”. Contrast to Amy Robinson’s talk on Eyewire, enormous enthusiasm about what they’re doing (NB: one of the coolest keynotes I’ve seen in years). Notes the variation in scale–intense ethnographic experience on an island, vs 160K people in gamified environment online. Both connected to citizen science, but do they have something in common or not?

Yes, in that understandings and knowledge connect with epistemologies. Cites Haklay 2013 levels of participation in citizen science, not critiquing but attempts to categorize things that are dramatically different. But “categorizations are not innocent” in how they define the space. Extreme according to whom? Reflects a view from the ivory tower focusing on human-knowledge interface, overlooks the organizational aspects to create the systems. Nothing about how resistance can be the substance of it, how it can be a provocation or challenge.

Form (style) is less important than goals: sense of movement more valid, moves toward scientific citizenship. What if Eyewirers started asking questions about how the platform and the people there create a type of academic capitalism? What if the relationships on the island were hoovered up, with people treated as standardized sensors? Change can go both ways, can lead toward more rich development.

Concept around scientific citizenship–focused on more controversial areas of science and tech development, raises questions about relationships between knowledge and democracy. Cognitive justice as a keyword. Potential for scientific citizenship via distributed expertise, opening up science to society, practiced engagement, scientific-institutional-citizenship learning?

Potential of citizen science for scientific citizenship: is there evidence of it? Relatively little. More low-level engagement right now. Is the potential there? Yes, but:
1. Citizen science needs to be seen as a challenge, disturbance, or provocation to science, not solely an extension.
2. Questions of control: it can’t always be science-led.
3. Citizen dimensions should be taken as seriously as the science. What’s the model of citizenship and purpose of engagement?
4. Concepts like “epistemic justice” should be brought into the discussion
5. Institutional learning needs to be addressed in structural terms.
6. Citizen science must be taken in the wider context of sociotechnical relations.

Feels STS can bring important elements to discussion, but right now STS is very marginal to the discussion.

Q: usage of term “citizen” implying both responsibilities and rights.
A: more attention to scientific perspective than question of what do we mean by citizenship, what are possible implications of this, could it be a way to open up?


Negotiating the concept of data quality in citizen science

Todd Suomela

RQs: what is discourse around data (quality) in citizen science, how is that negotiated?

Background with dissertation on framing citizen science in journalism, DataONE internship, and data quality panel at CSA conference. Internship announcement came out of working group, reflects a perspective of needing work to justify the value of the work. Panel at CSA 2015, summary that many projects use multiple mechanisms to influence data quality; methodological iteration is common in developmental stages; methods sections in published papers capture only part of the mechanism decisions made by researchers, e.g., confusion matrices.

Theoretical interlude: social worlds and situational analyses. Publics and sciences: responding to consequences of actions and the dependency of science on communication between scientists and the public.

Positional mapping with a split between public and science, and orthogonal relationship between social worlds: insiders to regulars to tourists to outsiders. Project scientists/staff, educators, external scientists, journalists-writers. Themes include data and visible feedback, positioning the individuals’ work in bigger picture.

For some, citizen science is a new label for an old thing. Promoting engagement with data in deeper ways is a key goal for many project staff. Visible and rapid feedback makes it easier for volunteers to see the value, and is important in design conversation. Quality is an obsession for insiders working on citizen science but strangers to this social world, both scientific and public, remain skeptical.

Calls for future work on data quality perceptions among scientists outside of current citizen science communities, links to more work on science studies.