For the past decade, interface designer and data viz expert Nicholas Felton has been publishing a highly influential yearly project called the Feltron Report. It’s a beautifully rendered depiction of his year, filled with intimate details of his life—ranging from the places he’s traveled, to the people he’s talked to most, to the booze he’s consumed. And it’s all wrapped up into a custom rendered series of data visualizations that scored Felton everything from a position at Facebook designing its Timeline to a near endless parade of speaking invitations across the globe.
Over this span, Felton’s commitment to his own data collection resembled an exercise in self-torture. He's worn noisy pedometers that clicked every time he took a step, built his own iPhone app to bug him through the day to ask what he was up to, spent a year documenting every single conversation he had, and even, at one point, found himself weighing a three-year-old's birthday cake to track his eating habits. But for this year’s report, a decade into his landmark life-logging experiment, sensors and data tracking are commonplace in our devices and software. So Felton eschewed these homebrew hacks, and turned entirely to off-the-shelf products to track his behaviors.
"This was absolutely the rehab year," Felton laughs. "Because apart from keeping these devices on me, charged and synced—which was certainly a commitment on its own—the only active things I was doing was recording drinking and weight."
A Basis fitness watch tracked his sleep and heart rate. A Lapka tracked his blood alcohol content. Rdio, iTunes, and Last.fm knew what he was listening to, while Netflix knew what he was watching. Automatic saw his driving habits. The Withings scale tracked his weight. Apple Photos and Instagram recorded the where and when of his picture taking. And a Facebook app called Moves, simply installed onto his phone, traced his steps and travels. It was a level of passive, consumer-friendly data collection that, just a decade earlier, was the stuff of science fiction.
What Felton Learned About Data's Limitations
At first glance, Felton’s results go as deep as ever. The first page of his report features what he calls a "time series circle packed stream graph"—it’s a timeline of his activity, rendered in effervescence. Each circle represents how long he spent at locations like his home or studio, listening to music like LCD Soundsystem or Jungle, doing activities like riding in a car or, as was most common, sleeping. Floating above it all, you’ll even see his most frequent heart rates. It’s a stunning mix of personal data, all quantified into the common language of big and little bubbles.
But what’s missing in the data is what Felton calls "one of the last great frontiers": context. The Basis watch might know his heart rate, but it was lousy at determining whether or not that reading occurred while he was on a run or just lounging on vacation. These individual products he was juggling were each incredibly powerful at going deep into their respective rabbit holes, but they didn’t communicate with one another to put his raw data into meaningful perspective.
It’s a shortcoming that’s most apparent when you realize there’s no social data in this report, either. While in previous years, I almost felt like a stalker in reading his detailed breakdowns on time he spent with his girlfriend or mother, at home our out, realizing how important these relationships must be to him, none of that is in his final project.
"I think it's the data problem, trying to get high-quality data into these systems is hard, asking for users' trust for trying to connect it," Felton says. "And the UI to tie all these thing together is quite tricky. Just trying to get photos onto a map with the amount of photos we take these days...attempting to cram them all in a map is really difficult."
One solution to contextualizing this data that Felton presented in his latest report were map cards, or what are basically combinations of Instagram photos, custom-rendered maps built from his GPS signature with most streets cut out, and various stats about his travels. Another was the Correlations section, in which he attempted to find trends across his own data. And while he’s presented these trends with a major disclaimer—a statistician who looked over the data found them questionable—they do, at the very least, present interesting theses as to how some of these discrete chunks of data are influencing one another.
For instance, when he began running more seriously, his weight dropped after five weeks, and his heart rate slowed over six. "This is undoubtedly bad science, [but the correlations] support a lot of things that are obvious to me," he says. "I trade work time for exercise, not other things. When I look at the studio time, on days I exercise, there’s notably less times in the studio."
These correlations are a peek into what Apple, Fitbit, or Jawbone could be doing with our data, if they looked at long-term trends and analyzed data outside their own specific purview. Rather than just displaying how many steps we took in any given day, in context, this data could actually teach us to live healthier lives.
How The Data Changed Felton
However, to look at 10 years of the Feltron Report as a lab experiment in quantification may be missing the larger experiment at play: how this hyper-aware addiction to data has changed Felton himself over that time.
"I think it’s certainly changed me. It’s hard to know because I only am who I am, but I know when I started this project, I embraced it because it encouraged me to do things that I wouldn't normally do because they’d be interesting to put into a report," he says. Much like the prospect of a great Instagram photo might push us to explore farther out onto a pier, or order a second dessert, the very public scrutinization of Felton’s life has led him to live a more adventurous one. Constantly seeing his own GPS path, he’ll walk different streets to complete his own map across the city, and that’s more or less a metaphor for how it’s influenced his life. "The reason I first decided to speak at a conference could have been because I thought that’d be interesting to put into this document. Or going to the Queens Beer Garden is going to be this extreme blip. I’ve incorporated that into my persona, when someone invites me to a talk, that’s just what I do."
For anyone frightened by a future in which we all share too much of ourselves with publicly traded companies—all while being rewarded a massive dose of FOMO as a result—Felton’s own 10-year experiment paints a somewhat brighter future for us all. Maybe all of these data points, put into the right context, really could lead us to be more healthy or outgoing.
Yet ironically, with so much more free time on his hands no that his Feltron Reports are done, Felton teases that he may be ready for life’s next great adventure.
"I think the secret was not having kids. I think that’s the kind of commitment that it’s been," Felton laughs. "Now that it’s out of the way, maybe there’s room in my life."