A very simple post-privacy manifesto

quantified self

In our daily work, we are regularly confronted with privacy issues: since our company Datarella provides data analytics based on external third party data and internal behavioral data gathered via our app explore, we know what it means to comply with national data protection regulations. And since we are based in Munich and most of our projects are executed in Germany, we naturally comply with Germany’s Datenschutzbestimmungen.

However, the basic motivation for our work originates with an intrinsic need of human beings: people want to know themselves, they want to learn who they are, why they behave the way they do and whether there are ways to improve their lives. For a long time, this noble task of exploring humanity was an exclusive exercise of philosophers, clergy, scientists and other intellectuals. John Doe didn’t have the means, time and leisure to go on this journey of his own discovery.

Today, since we may fly around the world with airplanes, use the internet to look up virtually anything and are always-on(line) thanks to mobile and other wearable devices, we don’t have to study sciences or be some brainy superhero to know the world in general and ourselves in particular. We are able to know ourselves not by visiting Freudian evening classes, but by collecting data about our own behavior. We weigh ourselves, we track our movements, or food intake and our somatic functions.

We quantify ourselves. In the United States, 70% of adults have tracked at least one specific data set regarding their somatic functions. And – let’s be honest – don’t you know your personal bodyweight? There you go – we all quantify ourselves. Not later than you reach your forties, you will start to care more about your body: you see the first signs of age and you ask yourself how to stay “young” a little longer.

That’s at least for the lucky ones, the healthy people who want to optimize their well-being. And then think of sick people, people with chronic diseases such as diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, etc. For them, any improvement of their lives quality is more than nice-to-have, but in most cases the only way to live a decent life without the sternest deprivations. People with chronic diseases are on long-term medication, often suffer from side-effects and depend on support from their physicians and the latest medical professional knowledge. The more they have to rely on others, the less they feel self-empowered. Or – vice versa- the more they can contribute to their convalescence themselves, the more dynamic that process will be.

The Quantified Self movement and with it, wearable tech, has turned the old hierarchical model of exclusive scientific knowledge – some (scientists, doctors) have the means (money, medical devices) to generate knowledge (physical examination) and to execute accordingly (prescribe drugs) – upside-down: now, the patient (everybody) has the means (e.g. $50 for a hemodynamometer) to generate knowledge (the blood pressure app) and to execute accordingly (e.g. change her behavior).

This is nothing less than the democratization of healthcare.

If you personally know people with chronic diseases and you look at the tremendously positive effects they achieve by quantifying themselves, you will never again doubt the meaningfulness and relevance of the Quantified Self. Besides collecting data about their own health, most people share their data with others. Sharing health data means providing a sound basis for research which is essential for exploring illnesses and developing innovative therapies. By sharing their data, people don’t give something away. They rather provide life-saving data to their peers, and therefore the bemefits to society clearly outweigh costs. (For privavy experts: sharing data means sharing data anonymously.)

Whether in healthcare or in other areas of life: in a post-privacy world, privacy is no longer guaranteed or even expected. Let’s face it: privacy has already been eroding on all levels. And do you know why? Privacy has reached its final stage because transparency and sharing are purely beneficial – they facilitate awareness, exploration, innovation, learning, collaboration and, finally, evolution. That’s why there’s no need to fear the loss of privacy – the benefits of transparency and sharing clearly overcompensate any negative effects.

I’m confidently looking forward to very dynamic processes in different areas of life – initiated by the Quantified Self. And I encourage you to participate in that movement! If you’re sceptically, just give it a try: start tracking some of your body functions and you will learn more about yourself. You might wonder about the consequences. And …. please stop mourning privacy – it’s over.

Practical, socially relevant technology

explore app

People use the word  technology for  “everything that doesn’t work yet.” Danny Hillis, a computer scientist and entrepreneur, pointed out that the best technology is unseen: once technologies works, they simply become computers, telephones. cars, etc. People accept technologies, when they regard them as providers of reliable routine solutions of problems, most of them belonging to one if the the “3Ds” categories: dull, dangerous and dirty.

Take robots: as long as we talk about “robots” we imagine some fascinating man-like machines, trying to mimick human behavior as muc as possible. But just “trying”. We don’t see those robots as equivalents to our own race and we don’t expect them to live with us as other humans do. But if you think of robotech vacuum cleaners, a trolley moving beds around hospital corridors, or industrial workhorses used for automated processes in manufactural plants worldwide, they cease being seen as robots. They are simply named after their functionalities. How would you name the CoBot of Carnegie Mellon, which – standing by the lift door – displays a little sign asking passers-by to press the appropriate button for it (Arms are expensive and fallible – so self-navigating robots don’t have them).

Every technology is as good as its practical – or social – relevance. This is, what Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for Digital Agenda, refers to in her contribution to a discussion about digital privacy. And this is -in my opinion – the biggest challenge of technology startups all over the world. In the aftermath of the dotcom bust more than ten years ago, a new generation of entrepreneurs has been leveraging mobile technologies to all sorts of more or less useful applications. As seen in the last ten years, the crash of the internet boom has not exactly brought an end to the internet, e-commerce or any other online business. If anything, the key players of those times are stronger than ever, with amazon as the poster child of a company having read its own obituary several times, but still being alive and well. In this light, the recent discussion of a bubble (in the technology business) should be assessed carefully. Most probably, many of the actual tech startups won’t survive their first liquidity droughts, and many will fail just because nobody needs their products or services.

And that’s where the above mentioned practicability comes in: if a product or service is practical and has social relevance, it will be used. If it only provides a nice-to-have feature but is nicely designed, it will only be used by the fans of that special feature. If it’s neither well designed nor does it provide a practical benefit, your startup presumably won’t survive.

With our own startup, Datarella, my business partners and I launched the app explore and we are trying to build a socially relevant service for smartphone users based on the app.

The three pillars of explore are:

  1. Everybody can use explore. The app itself is free and there is no need of using an additional gadget like a fitness band, or else. It’s in the user’s smartphone – with her all the time.
  2. It’s absolutely easy to participate: explore asks the right questions at the right time – nobody must be overly creative and fill in an empty diary – the user just answers short questionnaires in under a minute.
  3. The user gets individual personalized recommendations to change her behavior, if necessary. No standardized programs, but individual advice.

We think that with explore we match our own expectations of developing a technology which is practical and socially relevant.

Do you know other examples of socially relevant technologies? Be it an app measuring your radiation exposure, preventing wildfires or more. Please share them with me!

A Reply: You can learn something from somebody and everything from all.

Speyer Cathedral

This is a guest post by Janine Pfahl, a communications and learning expert. Janine replies to my earlier post., which you might read first.

While pausing for a moment in the spring sunshine to read Michael’s text „You can learn something from everybody and everything from all“, our dog positions his snout on my keyboard and starts to communicate in his own way. It’s absolutely clear what he wants to tell me. Not only dog owners can interpret this signal: „Come on, play with me! Stop working and stroke me!“ Even a dog is not able to not communicate and, after gazing back and forth, he lies down at my feet in the sunshine – and the both of us are happy. He did not only remind me to think of him, but that he is the wiser one. I reward him (and myself) by caressing him and I’m glad not having to speak to anybody.

Communications and learning are the main aspects of my job. I have to talk all day long, sometimes without any relevant timeouts. And while thinking about the different relationship levels of the individual communication partners, my self-revelation and the appeal of what I say,it becomes apparent that not only communication is unbelievably complicated but learning is anything but self-evident. Why?

The older we get the more we experience that we learn unconsciously each day. Is there anybody who wouldn’t be thankful for that? „You can learn something from everybody..“ and everybody knows something what you don’t know (yet). So simple, so true!

After an extended and pleasant discussion with Michael about that topic I couldn’t but agree to all that. So obvious, so natural, so good are his arguments: to learn from the experiences of others, to switch perspectives, to accept different opinions, to see oneself dealing with others and to learn from all that. In a word: be tolerant and learn from others. Who would not agree with that ideal? It sounds too good, doesn’t it?

But there is something which distracts me, since I am no saint. I’m a quite normal human being with my own idiosyncrasies. I am familiar with those dark, narrow blind lanes of communication. And I prefer shaky old wooden bridges over well-paved communication highways, anyway, To learn from others, that means not only to to learn via spoken or written words. We also learn by watching, we learn from other people’s behavior – but the connecting link always is communication. Communication with others doesn’t always proceed according to plan and sometimes smaller or larger misunderstandings happen. Who has never been in a catch-22 like this?

Although I love learning and I want to learn every day and all my life – sometimes I do not want to learn from others. I don’t want learn from a colleague I don’t really respect; I don’t want to learn from a neighbor who wears her humans stains like others wear their clothes. Even if they know something wich I don’t know, from time to time I prefer to turn a blind eye to something. It happens quite often that we see something beautiful when looking away.

For me, learning means not only to discover flaws in nice things, to tolerate them and to learn from them – but most of all it means to see the light and the beauty which emanates from something which is old, rotten or broken. Nature is our reflection: after a bad start into the day, nature shows flowers with enthusiasm – even if they knew that the next storm would carry them away.

My child, smiling at me after a short and bad night, opening his tired eyes….the dog, who asks to be caressed, but who offers me his soft fur to feel good myself. From all that I love to learn.

You can learn something from somebody and everything from all.

Recently, we went to Speyer with the whole family. There were far to many people. Happy about the first sunbeams, people annoyed themselves. At the Speyer Cathedral I saw a nun who, appearing relaxed and friendly, smiled at another person and waved. A wonderful moment, teaching me humility and tolerance.

 The photo was shot by Janine at Speyer Cathedral.

You can learn something from anybody

20140319-222459.jpg

I hear gossip about colleagues everyday – in the subway, during lunch, etc. . I don’t really listen to people chitchatting  but interestingly those people around me seem to always be the ones being in the right to complain about others. Until today I have never overheard a conversation in which somebody told her peer that she herself was unfair, illoyal or focusing on her individual success instead of the team’s. Isn’t that funny? It seems that people like to detect deficiencies in others and talk with their peers about them to  assure themselves of being in the right.

What about turning the table? Let’s not try to detect deficiencies in others, but to discover their abilities and individual skills!

You can learn something from anybody. Yes, from anybody. Even if you are a very smart guy with a PhD and/or truckloads of cash. You can learn something in situations and from people you don’t assess as important or of any value for you.

This is how wise people see it, and this has been my experience, too. Typically, some of the people we communicate with throughout the day, appear to be interesting, who add to our well-being by motivating us or who are just very nice. Others we would evaluate as “neutral” whereas from time to time we speak with people who waste our time, who are mere energy suckers: we talk with them, they complain about this and that, and at the end we feel exhausted.

Conventional wisdom recommends to shun those guys and I do not disagree in general. But especially those negative people, probably lamenting about their own problems and unfair treatments, can serve as (anti) role models: i.e. how not to behave, what to eschew.

Then we meet people who work in lower positions than we do, who are less educated or who simply dress in bad style. And you know what? Each of those individuals can do something better than we ourselves! Perhaps the checker – who left school at the age of 16 and whose monthly salary is your dinner bill – is deeply in love with her man while you’re busy managing your divorce. Or, take the bean counter from your controlling department – a man with thick glasses and without the lightest sense of humor – didn’t you see him last night playing the lead violin in the symphonic orchestra? Every human being is a master of something. And to identify these special skills is what we should do.

My personal experience is that I can learn something from anybody. This is a very interesting experience especially if you don’t expect it. But if you are an open-minded type and you look actively for skills in other people, you will be surprised about how well those skills are distributed.

The other (not: flip) side of these discoveries is: learning what others are capable of makes you humble. It illustrates that you aren’t Mr or Mrs Perfect – and that looking down at people is not only unsocial but doesn’t make any sense at all: if anything, by discovering skills and strengths in others we only learn from them. And this improves our own lives.

Learnings can be big things like learning to have patience, or small things like not to react immediately when somebody criticizes you, but to pause for a second, breathe – and react afterwards – in a much cooler way than you would have done without this mental break. The opportunities to learn come unexpectedly – in many cases you realize it much later. But that doesn’t matter: the most important aspect is that you do realize it, anyway. If that happens, you have been successful – that’s your learning.

Just try to learn from your friends, colleagues, neighbors, and especially from children (many adults would never imagine that they could learn from children at all)! If it works out for you the same as it does for me, you will experience less anger, you enhance your overall feeling and your life becomes more colorful.

You might be interested in reading the reply to this post, by @lenerl.

The photo was shot in Herrsching at Ammersee, a beautiful lake southwest of Munich.

From data to your heart’s desire

20140227-150543.jpg

Isn’t that fantastic? 50,000 women have – voluntarily – got pregnant in the last 18 months with the help of an app! At least this is what fertility startup Ovuline‘s CEO Paris Wallace said this week.

The Ovia fertility app has been downloaded 300,000 times and users are adding 1 million data points every two and a half days. This makes Ovuline’s fertility panel the largest in the world.

In the big data world, the more data a company has about users, the more more accurately it can predict their behavior. In Ovuline’s case this means, the company helps to guide women through their pregnancy. Users of the app know when they’re fertile or, in the case of its new pregnancy and they get instant feedback (which is something many other quantified-self apps still fail to do). For instance, the app can tell a woman whether her specific ache is normal and what percentage of other women also have it during this phase of their pregnancy.

Many people, especially here in Germany, are wondering about any privacy implications of using quantified-self apps. My pretty simple  take on that is: as long as you are not personally affected; i.e. you talk about doing sth. ‘in theory’, you miss the case when stressing privacy concerns. If you are a woman with a strong desire to have a child, and you can choose between a long and strenuous fertility therapy, or using apps like Ovia, Glow, Clue or Kindara – you won’t think twice!

And fertility is just one use case of many. Not being able to get children is really bad, but being able to prevent the next heart attack is even more important. At this point, let me quote QS co-founder Gary Wolf: “Self-quantifying will become a social responsibility.”

Women using a fertility app act autonomously and do not wait for – or have to trust in – external support by some fertility therapies. The new paradigm of the Quantified Self is that the individual can act and change things herself. It enables human beings to care for themselves. For me, this is the most important aspect of QS.

The photo was made on a party with beautiful kids (and their parents).