Illustrating Your Life in Graphs and Charts
By PETER WAYNER
Published: April 20, 2011
About five years ago, Nicholas Felton had a cute idea: to create an annual report of his life filled with charts and graphs about the restaurants he had visited and the days he had traveled — just like the annual reports sent out by companies, but with personal details.
That idea led him to co-found Daytum.com, which makes software to help people tabulate whatever they do and turn it into a chart — a visual depiction of everything from blood sugar levels to how much beer they drink. Mr. Felton said he had even seen a woman use the service to track her irrational fears.
These days, Daytum has a lot of competitors offering services to help people graph data relating to their lives. They all tap into the desire of people to make sense of the explosion of information available on the Internet, and through technology like smartphone apps.
Many are simply new features to existing services. For example, LinkedIn, the social network for professional connections, recently introduced a tool that can draw a picture of a user’s network of friends, colleagues and acquaintances. While the lines showing links between people look like a pile of spaghetti at first glance, the algorithm groups people who know each other so that the pictures have clusters showing which school friends might know which professional colleagues.
Ali Imam, a senior data scientist at LinkedIn, said he found that people would nod politely and smile when he showed them a picture of his network, but were much more interested when they could click on a button and see their own social network.
“It wasn’t as exciting unless I showed them their own,” he said. “That’s the key to it. They can tell their own story.”
Julie Inouye, a member of the marketing team at LinkedIn, said the service gave people the ability to understand connections among friends, and to find people she called the “key influencers” so that they could cultivate relationships.
“You probably want to rekindle that relationship or make sure you’re having regular coffee dates with that person because they’re probably well connected,” she said.
“We started out with patents and medical documents, and we would look at how different companies were citing each other, how inventors were working together and how scientists co-authoring medical literature were co-authoring papers together,” said Alexander Shapiro, the chief executive of TouchGraph, which is not owned by Facebook. “We wanted to apply our software to Facebook just as a way of demonstrating the capabilities.”
To try the tool on Facebook requires sharing your Facebook network with TouchGraph by linking your account with the Web site at touchgraph.com/facebook. The tool displays a person’s network only with permission.
Mr. Shapiro said the tool allowed people to understand a network with a glance and offered the example of a disk jockey who might want to manage a collection of fans.
“A D.J. might see that they have some people who are not connected to other people,” he explained. “This is an untapped person, a person who they might want to cultivate because it will bring in whole new crowds.”
Other services function as a kind of library for data. For example, the GeoCommons, built by GeoIQ, lets people store information related to a location and then plot that information on a map. In a demonstration, the company shows how people can enter information about the location of, say, cycling injuries in Vancouver; this allows other users to see which streets in that city seem to be most dangerous for bicycle riders.
Another demonstration shows the results of restaurant inspections in San Francisco, allowing anyone to see what neighborhoods have the most highly rated, or lowest-rated, places to eat.
The service is built to be as open as possible. Anyone can look at the maps; if you contribute your own data, it can be analyzed at no cost as long as you agree to make it public. Users who don’t want to publicize their data must pay.
Sean Gorman, the founder of GeoIQ, based in Arlington, Va., said the site could display more than 500,000 details about locations in the world.
It is also possible to merge the charts so, for example, if someone entered cycling injuries in San Francisco, and then wanted to see the relation of those events to the results of restaurant inspections, they could do so with a click. This picture might reveal a pattern, perhaps caused by deliverymen on bicycles, or it might show nothing.
Many of the users of GeoCommons are working with disaster relief in Haiti or in Japan, Mr. Gorman said. Both countries suffered devastating earthquakes within the last 18 months.
“People are putting in the seismic activity and where’s there flooding and impassable roads,” he said. “People have been taking the GPS data from sensors and finding where the passable roads are.”
Such information, he said, might interest anyone visiting Japan or anyone who does not want to wait for the government to provide the information.
Other maps can be found at sites like Radiation.crowdmap.com or Rdtn.org. These projects collect data from individual users and bigger platforms like Pachube.com, a company that describes itself as a “real time data brokerage for the Internet of things.” Pachube links networks of sensors and other hardware like Geiger counters to follow, for example, the distribution of radiation.
“A lot of people have been pushing real-time radiation data in order to be able to share,” said Usman Haque, a founder of Pachube.com. “We’re managing and converting this data for people to use this.”
Other services, among them, Runnerplus.com, Dailymile.com, FitnessJournal.org, or RunKeeper.com, gather information from an expanding network of sensors like accelerometers in cellphones or shoes. Users can plot the data — like how far they have run or walked in a day — and see on a chart whether they are meeting their fitness goals.
Jason Jacobs, the chief executive of RunKeeper, which plots information related to fitness, said his company was working to expand its collection of data beyond speed and distance of workouts. New efforts would gather data from Wi-Fi bathroom scales and sleep monitors so runners could monitor their speeds in relation to their weight and sleep.“There’s going to continue to be innovation with new, powerful data around the plumbing of the human body,” Mr. Jacobs said. “What everyone is starting to realize is that it’s great to collect data, but somebody needs to make sense of all of this data.”