These Smartphone Apps Track Every Step of Your Day

"Quantified self" apps know where you are, how you got there (by foot, bike, or train), who you're with — even how well you slept last night. Ellis Hamburger, a reporter at The Verge, reviews a handful of apps that track your daily movements, such as "Human" and "Moves."

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JOHN DANKOSKY, HOST:

Up next, smartphone apps that track your every move. I guess the smarter your smartphone gets, the more it can learn about you, and you don't even have to take it out of your pocket. All that data adds up to what is called the quantified self, a snapshot of your life based on the steps you take, the miles you run, where you go, who you meet, even how you sleep.

So what do you think about all this? Do you use quantified self apps? Does this sound more like your personal privacy nightmare? You can call us at 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. Here to talk about it with us is Ellis Hamburger, who's a reported at the Verge here in New York. He joins us at SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ellis, welcome to the show.

ELLIS HAMBURGER: Thanks for having me.

DANKOSKY: So which one of these do you use?

HAMBURGER: I actually use a combination of a few of them, and there are a few we can talk about. Some of them have more explicit goals for you, and some of them simply track you. So, the first one we can talk about is Moves. And you open it, you install it for the first time, and then you might just forget about it. You might check it at the end of every day. But as you move around every day, as you take a bike ride, go on the subway, it records what you're doing, how fast you're moving, decides if you're in the car or on a bike, and then, at the end of the day, you can actually see how many miles you've walked, how many miles you've biked, how many calories you've burned.

DANKOSKY: So, first of all, let's just - I want to understand this. How does it know if I'm walking or biking or riding the train, or in my car?

HAMBURGER: They use a lot of signals. It's a combination of triangulation from cell towers, GPS, whether you're connected to your Wi-Fi at home or at work, and it decides how fast you're moving using a combination of those signals.

DANKOSKY: So you download this app and you put it in your pocket, and at the end of the day, what's it going to tell you? I mean, what's the report on you at the end of the day on Moves?

HAMBURGER: The interesting thing about Moves is that it provides the tools to measure yourself, but it doesn't necessarily ask you to do anything with it. So you could see how many calories you've burned or how many miles you've walked. But there's another app that just came out a few weeks ago called Human that actually has a premise, a philosophy behind it, that 30 minutes per day of any kind of activity - whether you're walking or biking or running - can dramatically decrease your risk of just about any malady you can think of. So I think a goal like that is a little more accessible.

DANKOSKY: I'm John Dankosky, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. So, Human, this app, it has this very explicit goal, but it's not really giving you much more information than that. It's saying I want you to move around for 30 minutes a day, and essentially once you're done, yay, I've done it. Is that the point?

HAMBURGER: That's the point. So, the premise of Human is based on this talk by Dr. Mike Evans. It was called "23 and 1/2 Hours," and he was saying: What is the best thing you can do for your health? And his thesis was that it was 30 minutes of activity. And so Human tracks you the same way that Moves does, and at the end of the day, it says, hey, you only did 24 minutes a day. Maybe you should take a walk after dinner.

And I think the habit-making, the changing your own behavior is what can matter the most here. Maybe tomorrow, you'd get off one subway stop early just so you hit your daily 30, as they call it.

DANKOSKY: So, look, I pretty much am aware of what I'm doing every day. Why do I need to download an app to tell me what I'm doing every day?

HAMBURGER: Are you sure you know what you're doing every day?

DANKOSKY: Well, I think I know what I'm doing every day.

HAMBURGER: I thought I did.

DANKOSKY: OK.

HAMBURGER: And once I installed a couple of these apps, I realized I was only walking 17 or 18 minutes a day. And that's what was most interesting to me, is that in your effort to move closer - especially in an urban area like New York, you want to move closer to the subway for work and for at home. And I realized I was walking three minutes to the subway in the morning, three minutes at night, a couple minutes to the office. I wasn't doing anything except walking to the bathroom during the day. And it helped me realize that maybe I should get off at Union Square and walk the rest of the way home.

DANKOSKY: And you think these apps are better than some of the other devices that you can wear on your wrist or around your neck? They're - it's more convenient for you?

HAMBURGER: I think convenient is the key word. If you look at something like the Jawbone Up or the Fitbit or the Nike Fuelband, you wear them, but you also have to recharge it every night. It's one more thing to maintain, even though the batteries last pretty long. And I think for most people, they love downloading apps onto their iPhone, and they love trying them out. And having it on your phone means that there's no upkeep. It's always there. And it can hurt your battery life a little bit, but on the whole, it's easier to try out, I think, than buying a $100 gadget.

DANKOSKY: Tell us about - what is Memoto?

HAMBURGER: Memoto is a little, square camera that you attach to your lapel - and this is a little more progressive. And it takes a photo every 30 seconds. And then, at the end of the day, it uploads the photos to the cloud, where you can review them on your computer or on your phone and see a 30-minute snapshot of every time you were meeting with somebody in the bathroom, at lunch, what have you. And the goals of that one are a little more abstract. It's kind of getting a window into recording everything you do and trying to remember all of it.

DANKOSKY: So whether it's an app or a device that's taking pictures of you all the time, or one that's tracking your every movement, I would guess that there are a lot of people out there - perhaps myself included - who might think, well, this is pretty scary. I'm uploading this into the cloud. Somebody's got this information. I mean, what if my insurance company gets it? What if my boss gets it? I mean, what are the concerns here?

HAMBURGER: I think there are definitely concerns. The utmost importance to most of these companies is keeping your data private. And a lot of these guys are on Amazon servers, the same way that big companies like Dropbox are. So this is industry-level. This is - sorry, government-level, like, encryption. And so you can worry about that, but I think that the benefits are greater.

If you look at some of what some of these companies are doing, let's say Foursquare, which tracks the places that people go, there is so much to learn by all of this anonymized data - if we all decide to share it - about our health. That was one of the things that I learned when I was writing about Human, is that there have been so few long-term studies about something as simple as moving every day, and some of the ones they were citing were in the '90s from a company in China that was trying to create healthier lives for their workers. And they're really...

DANKOSKY: Ah, but whenever somebody says I want to create a healthier life for you, I guess I'm worried about what they're doing - not that somebody's going to steal my data, but that the company I'm giving it to is going to do something I don't want them to do with it.

HAMBURGER: Certainly a cause for concern, but I think that when you look at the level of transparency that some of these apps and gadgets give you, you can hopefully become healthier and make some changes in your life. But you're right. In the wrong hands, who knows what could happen?

DANKOSKY: A last thing for you: Is there anything new that's coming out, anymore of this quantified self that we should be looking for?

HAMBURGER: I think something that people don't always consider quantified self, but that's going to become more pervasive in our society is when you look at something like Google Glass, where you have the ability - not yet, because of the constraints of the battery on Google Glass. But some day, we're going to be able to record every minute of our lives. And I think people need to start thinking about what that means for them, and how that's going to affect their life and how they live it and what type of changes they might make based on what they can learn. Or maybe it's just sharing with your kids, here's what it was like when I was walking around every day.

DANKOSKY: Well, we've run out of time. I'm going to go check to see how many calories I've burned during this interview. Thank you so much for joining us, Ellis Hamburger.

HAMBURGER: Thanks for having me, John.

DANKOSKY: Ellis Hamburger is a reporter at The Verge, here in New York.

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