MORE THAN YOU COULD EVER WANT TO KNOW ABOUT NICHOLAS FELTON
Before Fitbit, there was the Feltron Report. Starting in 2005, well before the popularity of self-moniteering devices, WNW Member #8275 Nicholas Felton tracks, quantifies, and designs a yearly data visualization of, well, himself. Named the Feltron Report (a sort of nod to appearing more corporate), Nicholas organizes his life into quarters, accounting for his computer, location, environment, car, media consumption, sleep activity, and physiology. The result is nothing short of astounding. (MoMA seems to agree.)
Ten years later, Nicholas was the lead designer on Facebook's timeline and has helped launch Reporter, an iPhone app designed to record and visualize subtle aspects of our lives. Nicholas recently released his most recent Annual Report, which is apparently also his last. In light of what may be the Final Feltron, we spoke to Nicholas about his extremely personal project.
How did you determine what to analyze?
Over the course of this project curiosity has compelled me to collect lots of nearly unknowable information about myself. I tend to pick metrics that I find personally compelling, but that are mysteries to nearly everyone… like how far I travel in a year or how many cups of coffee I consume. As the project progressed, I also discovered areas of interest that resisted simple or even brute-force collection. The challenge here is to develop a methodology for collection that will give high quality results and be workable for a year. To capture mood data about myself, I wound up devising an online survey that others would complete to record my behavior. In 2012 I commissioned a random-sampling iPhone app that I worked beautifully and I ultimately released it publicly as Reporter.
What you've learned about yourself when putting the reports together?
The most obvious thing I’ve learned about myself is that I have a high tolerance for labor-intensive past-times like data collection. I don’t tend to be too surprised by the findings of my reports. In fact, if I find something surprising in my analysis, it typically means that I’ve made a mistake somewhere. The awareness of everyday activity required for its capture means that I typically have a good sense of the things I investigate. One item that did surprise me was when I looked at my social contact by days of the week. By looking at my year through this different lens, I could see how each of my time with each friend was clustered around a particular day of the week, like Friday for my girlfriend or Wednesday for my business partner.
How have you seen yourself change over time?
One of my priorities with this project has been to capture my year with high fidelity without affecting my behavior too much. As a result, behavior change has been hard to notice and to optimize for behavior change I would probably want a much faster feedback loop than once per year.
Why did you decide to sell the reports?
I decided to try selling the reports in 2007. This was the third edition of the project and the second year I produced a printed version of the project. Charging for the reports was an experiment to see 1) if I could recoup some of the production costs and 2) how desirable of an object the report was. Fortunately I sold plenty of copies that year and with an audience willing to support the project I have been able to improve the production quality year over year.
Does the content influence the design?
The design of the report is always in service to the content. I am never satisfied until I feel that I've squeezed all the possible stories out of my data. The challenge is to find ways of linking the entire document together while also serving each angle of the data. Some years, the layout becomes more consistent to allow comparison from page to page (e.g., 2014 or 2011) while other years my desire is to delve deep on a facet of the data and develop custom visualizations for each page within a repeating layout (e.g., 2013 or 2012).
In publishing the reports, have you felt exposed? Did you ever hesitate to share all this information about yourself?
Fortunately, I am the researcher, designer and editor of my reports, so if anything is revealed, it’s because I want it to be there. I am transparent to a point, interested in showcasing my best attributes and certainly willing to make a joke at my own expense from time to time.
Are there things you've been tempted to track but ultimately decided not to? Why?
There are things that I’ve tried to track and failed at. Frequency is this discipline’s best friend… so when things happen irregularly it is hard to remain diligent and record them. I remember one year, I wanted to track all the pills that I consumed. The problem is that I don’t take vitamins really only take pills infrequently. A few weeks into the report I took an Advil but forgot to record it because I wasn’t trained to recognize it. A few days after I took the pill, I remembered that I was meant to log it and decided that the data was already corrupt and that I shouldn’t capture it.
Why is this the last Report?
There are three reasons why this is the last one:
1. I think that if you go past 10, you have to commit to another larger number like 20 or 25… stopping at 11 is not an option.
2. The reports take longer and longer to create. I always felt that there was no point in releasing an edition unless it was better than the last one. Unfortunately, this has meant that they take longer and longer to create and I’m now into the tenth month of the year before a report is finished. If I was to do one more, it would take longer than a year to produce and start causing real problems.
3. I have worked towards this report being the last one for a few years. The ninth report set this up by wrestling with the most ambitious topic I could imagine… capturing and evaluating my communication. Beyond that, I can’t think of anything more complicated that could be reasonably recorded. Now, with the final edition, I am able to revisit what is possible without doing much that’s out of the ordinary. By using only consumer apps and devices, I can evaluate the fidelity of personal data today and illustrate how far technology and society has moved since the inception of this project.