Data at your service
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It seems the arrival of a brand new year creates a common compulsion to try and make ourselves anew. In 2014, that task will become just a bit easier. Because I think that this year will be when personal data and the 'quantified self' starts to really look at what people want and need to improve, rather than just the data that can easily be gathered and tracked.

It's already possible to gather lots of data from your phone, or from specific tracking devices, such as the Nike+ Fuelband, or a Fitbit. If you're an Oystercard user, you can download a monthly list of your journeys. And the government's midata project aims to make it much easier to get data out of your bank, your energy provider and lots of other companies besides.

When it comes to putting this data to work, you're mostly faced with single-purpose services: a health app for your phone or an online energy switching service. Combining more than one type of data is quite hard, and requires lots of manual effort. Sometimes it's hard to extract the data at all - Fitbit and Nike don't allow you to export your data.

Data links

Why might you want to combine more than one type of data? There are some obvious combinations that are already supported - for example, seeing your weight and your exercise measures in one place. But everyone's goals are different, and if I want to see whether there's a link between when I get to work (time from my Oystercard) and how productive my day was (measured by RescueTime), I've got to do quite a lot of work to find the answer. If I want to add in activity data as well, it starts to become obvious that this is the sort of thing only a true enthusiast would attempt.

A great example of what is nearly-but-not quite working, is the traffic advice on my phone. At a certain point in the afternoon, my phone now tells me how long it would take to drive home, based on my work and home locations, and the current traffic conditions between the two. All very clever - except my phone doesn't know that I take public transport to work, and that I would prefer to know the quickest public transport route home, taking account of any delays.

To break through this barrier and start putting our own data to use, we need a few things to happen:

  1. For companies to accept that we have the right to get back the data they collect from us (or that we collect for them). Greater exportability of data, and use of APIs, would make many more services possible. The midata project is a great step in the right direction.
  2. A better expression of the usefulness of some of this data. The data, or even some of the information derived from it, is pretty meaningless on its own. It is only when it can easily be put together with your own goals and aspirations, and can offer more specific advice that it becomes a real service.

Mydex has been working for some time to provide the secure data storage that is needed to make these services work. The midata Innovation Lab recently produced some prototype examples of what might be achieved with this sort of data, using examples on healthcare, moving house and supporting an elderly relative.

The government will be taking forward legislation to compel companies to release data back to their users, especially in areas where consumer choice is important, like energy and banking. 2014 could be the year when it all comes together.