The Not So Private Personal Informatics

The language used around HCI research into digital health and wellbeing monitors, trackers and coaches reinforces the idea of information ownership by the data subjects themselves. We read about personal informatics, quantified self, life logging, self-tracking, and personal enhancement.

These labels suggest an intimacy and a sense of possession. Are we to believe personal informatics are exemplars of Suchman’s complementary machines and humans, where the outcome is relational, situational and can change over time? People’s capacity to act is reconfigured as they interact, but is their agency being thwarted by lack of awareness?

Neither an individual view, nor a peer-to-peer view, seem to capture the richness of relationships, or the variety of motivations, or the range of use. As individuals interact with their technology and social clusters, and as they experience, curate and share their lived data, we need a broader perspective (Kuutti, 1996) which examines how other parties in the data universe interact. The situation boundaries are wider than the person and their apps.

Personal informatics extends beyond the individuals themselves and their own social clusters. The data have value as assets to the organisation providing the services; it also has value to other organisations who might want to use the data for legitimate or improper purposes, and finally it has societal value as interpreted by local and national government, regulators and other bodies (Watson and Leach, 2010).

Individuals have little knowledge of the ways their data might be used, and how or when this might affect them negatively, as it flows through these different parties. It is not so much an ambiguity in explanation, but a complete hopelessness in understanding and control, despite changing legislation and regulation or the existence of privacy notices. The situation they believe they are in is far removed from reality – the plans exist and the individuals are not in control.

If citizens cannot achieve an understanding and insight into what is happening in personal informatics and the trade-offs being made (Pirolli and Russell, 2011), what hope is there that they can take intelligent action? Personal informatics is a long way from individual sensemaking, and currently more akin to data collection sensors for exploitation by other parties – individuals as instrumentation.

Fortunately, the individual-centric research view is changing, with research into the social motivations of these technologies such as understanding the social contexts and practices. Our models, methods, techniques need to perceive the wider picture to understand what is happening and what the side-effects are, at both individual and societal levels. In the meantime, change the language from Personal Informatics – it is Exposure Informatics.


Chris Elsden, David S. Kirk, Abigail C. Durrant. 2016. A Quantified Past: Toward Design for Remembering With Personal Informatics. Human-Computer Interaction.

Kari Kuutti. 1996. Activity Theory as a Potential Framework for Human-Computer Interaction Research. Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human Computer Interaction, MIT, Massachusetts, USA.

Peter Pirolli, Daniel M Russell. 2011. Introduction to this Special Issue on Sensemaking. Human–Computer Interaction 26, 1–2: 1–8.

Colin Watson, John Leach. 2010. The Privacy Dividend : the business case for investing in proactive privacy protection. UK Information Commissioner’s Office.


Author’s own. Cyclists participating in Sky Ride London 2010.

Data science will change the world

I attended Urban Analytics Data Dive event on 25 and 26 July at the Alan Turing Institute in London. With a strong faith that data science can change the world, the Alan Turing Institute joined forces with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Data Science Campus to host the first policy-focused Data Dive. The event brought together PhD Students, postdoctoral fellows and early career researchers in data science with an aim to design data science solutions to real world challenges.
In two days, six teams tried to come up with innovative big data solutions to address the following three challenges: (1) where could we build more houses? (2) what are the benefits of access to green spaces? (3) can you develop novel early indicators of the health of the economy? In addition to already available Open Data sources, the teams were provided a wide range of additional data by the Satellite Applications Catapult, the Urban Big Data Centre and ONS. Also to help crunch the numbers, Microsoft provided each team resources on the Azure Cloud.
I worked in a team tackling the challenge of “what are the benefits of access to green spaces?” I chose this because it aligns with my research around using data to influence local planning and advocating for healthier environments. As there is already a lot of literature on the health benefits of green spaces and we have a pretty good idea where green spaces are (courtesy of satellite imagery and a new datasets provided by Ordnance Survey), we decided to focus on how and who can access green spaces.
Fortunately for me, we took Newcastle as our test case for figuring out these questions. We used datasets about green spaces and their entrances points and merged it with census data on commutes to work to figure out how likely people are to go through parks. Also we could say where would be the best entrance points to parks to increase their usage on commutes.  We showed how green each area of the city is and developed a walking index (how likely people are to walk through parks) from each area. All of these and other resources for our team are available at
This shows the power of data and how you can derive new interesting insights by merging different datasets rather than answering one specific question by polling citizens with surveys. As these insights are useful for policy makers, they could be equally useful for the people on the ground. Imagine an application which gives you alternative routes for commuting, cycling or running that utilises the most of green spaces. Also thinking about the issues of air pollution that the country is facing, we could equip people with knowledge on how to choose the healthier routes and alternative modes of transport. For example, by merging this data with air quality data from Urban Observatory. As a result, people would live a healthier life and this could save the NHS a lot of money.
At the end of the second day, each team had to present back their ideas, methodology, developed tools and other findings in a 10 minute presentation which was judged by professionals from the field. I, and all the people at the event, were amazed with the results people came up with in two short days. It show what you can achieve with motivated and skilful people when you bring them together and provide them with data and resources. Hopefully these events encourage governments and other institutions to open up their data and invite people with skills to use it for public good #datascienceforpublicgood.
Looking forward to new events and collaborations with The Alan Turing Institute and Data Science Campus.

For more information please contact Aare Puussaar.

Getting young people thinking active

For nearly a decade primary school children in the North East have learned about fitness and nutrition through Newcastle United Foundation’s Match Fit programme. Now, a digital civics project aims to enhance this six-week programme by using digital technologies to further increase the fitness and health awareness of primary school children.

Students taking part in Match Fit learn about nutrition and exercise, as well as taking part in extensive physical activity, all inspired by the fitness regime of Newcastle United’s footballers. takes this project one stage further by using sensors to measure the movement of the children to see just how active they are. Inexpensive fitness trackers report on step counts over the course of the programme to evidence behaviour change.

The goal of is to is to engage students with their own activity and nutritional data to enhance data literacy and help them learn about how health and fitness can be supported by technology. The data collected through the programme can also be used as an engaging educational resource by teachers; hopefully a more critical understanding of data provides students with the skills to be engaged digital citizens.

For more information please contact Andy Garbett.

How do groups form in digital economies?

Data Publics is a three-day conference Open Lab is organising in collaboration with Lancaster University.

The conference explores the diverse ways in which “publics” are, and can be, constituted, provoked, threatened, understood, and represented. This includes scrutinising the role played in the formation of publics by new on- and offline infrastructures, data visualisations, social and economic practices, research methods and creative practices, and emerging and future technologies.

The event is designed to facilitate cross-cutting conversations between designers, social scientists and creative technologists to explore challenges and opportunities afforded by thinking and working with “Data Publics”.

This is an interdisciplinary conference and contributions from researchers within the areas of social science, design, new media art, data visualisation, and human-computer interaction are warmly invited. The event will comprise a combination of hands-on workshops, paper presentations and an exhibition of work.

Day one will provide hands-on introductions to key methods for investigating data publics, involving two workshops running in parallel. One workshop – ‘Digital Methods/Data Visualisation’, led by David Moats – will introduce the digital methods and data visualisation approaches to conduct research in this field. The other – ‘Strategies, Tools and Participatory Processes’, led by Open Lab’s Clara Crivellaro – will explore the practicalities of using design strategies, tools and participatory processes to support the formation of publics. Days two and three of the conference feature academic paper presentations and exhibits from participants, with a focus on the way a diverse array of methods, analytical approaches, representational techniques and practical engagements might be related to one another and combined.

For more information please contact Clara Crivellaro.

Personal data: trust, power and innovation

Digital technology has opened up countless opportunities for collecting, sharing and using data: “a fundamental paradigm shift in our world,” according to Digital Catapult’s Lucie Burgess.

“What we’re seeing now is new models of companies being able to engage with users through their personal data in a way that builds trust,” she explained. “That can build all sorts of commercial opportunities and is really good for the user because it gives them access to new products and services, ways of living their life that they might not have thought about before, but you’ve got to do that in a way which really builds trust.”

Lucie is the Head of Personal Data and Trust at Digital Catapult, which works with a wide variety of organisations to support the development of new technologies – to remove the “barriers of innovation which mean that that technology hasn’t reached its full maturity, capability or adoption”. The Personal Data and Trust Network works with industry, research and the public sector to explore innovation with personal data.

Data sharing “both good and bad”

Some GP surgeries are starting to give patients access to their medical records online, but this progress is slower than Lucie would like. She envisions a world where people participate more directly in their health, hoping that “we move away from this patriarchal model that we used to have towards one were people are actively involved in managing their own health and wellbeing and fitness.”

She continued: “there’s lots of evidence to show that you have better health outcomes if that’s the case. So personal data is really important.”

Thirty years ago mobile phones let people phone on the move, but this has now become another source of personal data, and location data is now collected by default on mobile devices. Lucie highlighted the benefits of this – “it means that you can access all sorts of services like online maps and content that takes into account your locality” – it has its downsides. “It also means that people potentially know where you are, and that’s both good and bad,” Lucie suggested.

So while on the one hand we now have technology to send people notifications if they pass a shop that sold something they were looking for, we also see ads based on keywords we have written in our notes.

“I was writing some notes recently in a business meeting about block chain, and then five minutes later there were all sorts of books and services being advertised to me about block chain,” Lucie recalled. “In actual fact it was quite useful in that particular context, but it might not be, and there are obviously massive issues for security.” She pointed out the potentially life-threatening danger of a hacked autonomous vehicle.

Decisions based on algorithms

Concerns about data are about more than just hacking, though. Trust and perception play a big part, and part of Digital Catapult’s research is into public attitudes towards data. The Investigatory Powers Bill has attracted controversy as it passes into law, and Lucie expressed concern at the level of surveillance and the quantity of data that telecoms providers will now be required to keep. More generally, though, she believes the issue is in a lack of understanding about the types of data that companies collect. Another important piece of upcoming legislation is the General Data Protect Regulation, which comes into force in 2018.

The GDPR will give people more power to question decisions made by algorithms based on their personal data. “On the most anodyne side of things, they’ll predict our shopping behaviours – it’s not really that much of a problem if you get offered a red pair of shoes instead of a black pair of shoes – but if you’re prevented from access to credit, or your health insurance is going to be more expensive because of data that you’ve provided… those are important decisions that are made about us and we’re going to have a right under the new legislation to challenge those decisions.”

Food labels and data receipts

One of the projects Digital Catapult is working on is a system of “food labels for privacy”. Like food labels on food, these little symbols will let people see at a glance what kind of data is being collected about them and what it will be used for. In the spirit of participatory design and empowering people when it comes to their data, the public will be asked to choose the five things they feel most warrant these labels, and even what the icons should look like.

“There’ll still be a link to the privacy policy,” Lucie assured. “But we’re trying to help organisations convey privacy policies in a much simpler way so that people don’t have to read something the length of Hamlet to understand what’s being done with their data.” For data protection and privacy, you can contact new york privacy compliance, that provides layers of online security

The other project which really excites Lucie is the idea of personal data receipts. These are currently being trialled at the Digital Catapult Centre, but Lucie hopes it will grow and be used more widely.

Rather than signing into a book with a pen, visitors to the Digital Catapult Centre sign in electronically and provide basic information such as their name, company and email address. They will then automatically be sent a personal data receipt which will tell them the type of data they provided – “we don’t say back to them what the data is, obviously, because that in itself would be a security breach,” – and how Digital Catapult will use that data. Crucially, the receipt informs people how to have their data removed from Digital Catapult’s databases.

Several people have taken up this offer to have their data wiped, and also people that have provided false email addresses because “they don’t want to give us the data in the first place!” Interestingly, one person gave a false email address which happened to be a real email address for somebody else, demonstrating why the receipts do not repeat the data itself, only the type of data provided.

Lucie stressed the advantages of sharing data, and believes that by making data collection and usage more transparent, and by giving people more control over their own data, data can benefit everybody. She concluded: “Choose what data you share. Do it in the knowledge of how it’s going to be used. Recognise that it can have some benefits and some risks.”

Citizense Makers: making sense of your data

Self-tracking or quantified-self practices, where people monitor and record specific aspects of their life, have become more and more popular over the last few years. Life logging has been a practice for a special subculture of tech savvy ‘computer geeks’ but the penetration of smartphones, wearables and always-on sensors have brought this into the mainstream.

For example, people knowingly use wearables such as Fitbit, Jawbone and Apple watches (to name a few) to record their activities. Apps running in the background even record data without people releasing it.

All of this ubiquitous technology makes this data collection an effortless activity and the data trace that people leave behind is enormous. This collected data might be useful for some big companies who have algorithms in place to process it, but the real value for individuals is still vague.

Furthermore, there is a clear distinction between having data and possessing the context or tools to convert it to information. How much context would an individual need to make sense of data?

Personal informatics

This exploratory study is looking into how data from personal informatics tools can be shared and explored for collective cause. Instead of sharing only high-level statistics of physical activities and physiological measurements, which is usually the case with personal tracking technologies, we investigate sharing and comparing of fine-grained datasets.

For example, a heart rate recorded by a Fitbit wearable – one might know what a good heart rate is for cardio training when running, but what should be one’s resting heart rate when sitting behind a desk at work? Do everyone’s heart rates go up when there is a stressful time in the office?

The Citizense Makers platform aims to provide people more context (in the form of social context) and allows them to ground their data using other people’s data as a comparison. It gives individuals the ability to share and explore their personal data in context with other people’s data, while retaining complete control over it.

It only takes couple of click to start exploring data – one needs to log in using an existing Fitbit account and then the system makes a link between the Fitbit servers. The platform can be used as a personal reflection tool and it uses scroll-based interactions to play thought a day using data recorded form a personal informatics device such as a Fitbit.

Data liberation

One of the main focuses of the Citizense Makers platform is data liberation – giving people back the ownership of their data and letting them decide with whom they want to share it with.

Citizense Makers platform allows people to set individual rights to each person they want to share data with, giving the control of the data back its originator. Adding a more social element to self-tracking, the system also allows people to annotate and discuss interesting relationships in the data. As this socially contextual data discovery could give more meaning to experiences and perhaps help individuals get a better understanding of their lives, it could also help them in collective sense-making, which could lead to better decisions.

The initial study looked at how data collected from personal informatics tools can be shared between occupants in workplaces and explored for a collective cause, but we can imagine this tool could be reconfigured and used in a range of different settings. We will be maintaining and improving the Citizense Makers platform to help people explore and analyse their data in ways that are understandable and meaningful for them. Eventually we will open the platform up for a larger public and link it to other interesting datasets, giving people the ability to compare and relate their data to others.

For more information please contact Aare Puussaar.