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12 Aug 2020 7:09
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  •   Home > News > International

    'Data selfies': Meet the people who are taking self-portraits using charts, graphs and diagrams

    A growing number of people are telling stories about themselves by plotting data that documents their job seeking success, sleep cycles, fitness and even when they tell lies.

    When people want to take a self-portrait of themselves, they might choose to take a selfie. But there's another way: data.

    Zek Kruger has regularly recorded and shared data on parts of his life, like his search for his first job as a security guard.

    "I started tracking who I'd sent applications to and whether I'd gotten responses. I kept this information at first so I would know who I was talking to when they called," he said.

    The 19-year-old from the Gold Coast created an Excel spreadsheet and chronicled every stage of the application process for every job he applied to until he was hired.

    Once he got the job, he shared his experiences with a subreddit called r/DataIsBeautiful, an online community with more than 14 million members celebrating displays of data.

    Mr Kruger had seen other people in the community tell stories about their lives through creative uses of graphs, charts and diagrams.

    So he decided to join in.

    He designed a Sankey diagram — a very popular type of graph in the community — that depicted his job search as a series of flows (above)and posted it to the subreddit.

    Sharing the data was a way of explaining to the community what this part of Mr Kruger's life was like.

    "I felt a bit of a connection to that community," Mr Kruger said. "And I had accomplished something."

    Recording your life

    People have long captured parts of their lives through records like diaries.

    Technological innovations like computers, smartphones and fitness trackers have expanded what people can measure and track about their lives.

    The increasing amount and varieties of data that people capture, known as self-tracking data, has opened the door to new ways of exploring and expressing themselves, said Dr Ben Lyall, a Monash University Health and Biofutures researcher who's studied digital self-tracking.

    "It's getting to the stage where the tools are plentiful and getting cheaper every year. There's so many apps that come preinstalled — like screen time metrics on phones — and lots of things that allow people a way into self-tracking," he said.

    Dr Lyall is a co-author of a new research paper about what he calls "confessional data selfies", which is when people share self-tracking data to tell a story about a story about themselves.

    While diarising is sometimes considered feminine, the self-tracking community appeared to be mostly men, he said.

    "Numbers tend to be coded as masculine. These posts show people tracking change as it happens over time, using visual displays. It speaks to the events and moments in their lives — but using a familiar language of numbers."

    According to Dr Lyall, the r/DataIsBeautiful community is an expressive and open community who use data communication as a way of communication.

    One member of the community summed the appeal up with a pun about charts: "I go to r/DataIsBeautiful for the plots".

    "There are posts about parenthood, about grief, about life and death. It was interesting to see people share their experiences and sometimes commiserate with each other," Dr Lyall said.

    "The process of recording is quite helpful"

    Not everyone who keeps self-tracking data shares it publicly.

    Melbourne-based designer Nick Hallam has been tracking aspects of his life for more than a decade, inspired by a New York infographic designer who began publishing annual reports about his life.

    Uninspired by other options, Mr Hallam built his own method of tracking different aspects of his life: from his weight to how often he eats meat to, more recently, how many times he lies each day.

    He says it's the act of tracking that helps him understand how his behaviours are affecting his mood at the time, rather than insights gained by analysing data.

    "I can't say that I go through and reflect on the data, but the process of recording is quite helpful," he said.

    For Mr Hallam, showing his partner his spreadsheet or logging his runs on the fitness tracking app, Strava, is a way of expressing how he feels or how he's performing.

    "I can attest to the idea that my fitness is drastically changed by being able to broadcast it to a bunch of strangers or people in my running group," he said.

    He's also shared some of the health data he keeps with doctors and physiotherapists.

    Mr Hallam cautions, though, how useful self-tracking data can be, particularly when it's tracked by others.

    He says a friend's wearable fitness tracker recently told her that she was pregnant because her period was late. She soon realised it was wrong — but not before she was given a scare.

    This is an example, Mr Hallam said, of how blunt and imprecise self-tracking tools can be when they're not personalised for the person using them.

    Dr Lyall said he generally sees people use self-tracking data to express themselves in ways that weren't necessarily intended by technology makers.

    "You don't see people just putting up a screenshot of their Fitbit challenges. They're using WhatsApp to message people and share what they've achieved, or to compare their sleep cycles," he said.

    Dr Lyall doesn't keep self-tracking data on his life — he says he's never found it particularly useful for himself — but he understands why other people do.

    He says people don't care as much about the raw numbers as much as what this data shows.

    "People want to go in wanting to crunch the data, but what keeps them motivated in the long term is the ability to share," he said.

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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