Quantified-Self, Experience Sampling, and Ecological Momentary Assessment Tech for Behavioral Science

Lately I’ve been dabbling in self-quantification, exploring various tools and procedures to better track and understand myself. There is a vibrant community of quantified-selfers actively participating in online forums, local meet-ups, and international conferences. There are mountains of data and code self-experimenters share publicly and a growing number of tools available to assist quantifiers.

I have only scratched the surface in my exploration. I have a self-experiment on coffee and cognitive skills underway (see here and here, results soon) and I’ve kept close tabs on my running for 6 months now. I recently started tracking my mood, hydration, and working-habits (among other things) with the Reporter Application. Report is a mobile app from Nicholas Feltron and friends, based on the Annual Feltron Report. The Feltron Report is part-diary, part-data visualization, part-statistical report on the day-to-day life of Nicholas Feltron. It covers the mundane to the fantastical to the pragmatic. If you like radio (I do), 99percentinvisible covers this aesthetic-data-nerd’s report with beautifully engineered sound candy. The Report App allows you to customize questions so you can track whatever you find interesting and has built-in ecological momentary assessment or experiential sampling, which is a scientific procedure for collecting information on human behavior, emotion, etc. in real-time. You have some control over the schedule of data collection. You can set the number of times throughout the day you want the app to ping you with the questions and you can answer the same set or a separate set of questions when waking in the morning or going to bed in the evening.

Experience sample and ecological momentary assessment are not new methodologies. They’ve been used by social and behavioral scientists for decades, but the technology is changing which has allowed for growth in what is possible. Tamlin Conner at University of Otago describes the new possibilities for experience sampling and ecological momentary assessment research in the Handbook of Research Methods for Studying Daily Life. This chapter is a good read on conceptual and methodological reasons why more behavioral scientists should explore this area.

Does physical activity promote emotional well-being? Do people eat differently when away from home, or when others are around?… How is behavior affected by the physical settings in which we live, work, and play? Methods for studying daily life experiences have arrived, fueled by questions of this sort and new technologies… Daily life experience methods are familiar, albeit not yet standard, tools in several literatures (e.g., medicine and health, emotion, social and family interaction). In the National Institutes of Health’s Healthy People 2020 initiative, Bachrach (2010) highlighted these methods among the “tools that can revolutionize the behavioral and social sciences,” not­ withstanding the fact that “researchers are still in the earliest stages of tapping into [their] vast potential.”… Moreover, new technologies… promise to increase dramatically the scope and accessibility of these methods. In short, there is every reason to expect that daily life research methods will become more influential in the near future.

I will continue with the self-quantification and start sharing some of my findings, but my next step is to explore how methods and tools from the quantified-self world, such as experiential sampling and ecological momentary assessment, can be use in behavioral and psychological research. PACO is one tool that has peaked my interest. It allows the user to design experiential sampling experiment, and then administer and distribute the experiment to a population via email. PACO comes from Bob Evan, a google employee, and while it is still in beta I think it has a lot of potential. Also, it doesn’t hurt that it is free and open source.

There are a number of other companies and apps that are emerging in this realm. With new technologies there are new possibilities for research (and probably money to be made for those who can develop technologies that enhance the research capablities of behavioral and social scientists). Tamlin was kind enough document and share a list of tools on the market (See this link: Conner, T. S. (2013, Nov). Experience sampling and ecological momentary assessment with mobile phones. Retrieved from http://www.otago.ac.nz/psychology/otago047475.pdf.).

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