May 12, 2013 10:25 pm

Technology: Apps that help you manage your life

Socrates statue in front of the National Academy of Athens, Greece©Dreamstime

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates – though there is little chance of avoiding scrutiny today

Know thyself, advises the ancient Greek aphorism – and before others get to know you better, a modern-day thinker might add, given the surveillance to which we are all subjected to today.

If learning is to be life-long, we should get used to being assessed by the latest science of data analytics – a continuous monitoring of our thoughts, interests, attention span, productivity and overall performance culled from our interactions with online courses, social networks and other services. Then there are the data produced from observing us through cameras and sensors in our smart devices, and through an increasingly smart world around us.

But what if all this data could be turned to our advantage and we could stay a step ahead of those wanting to get our measure, whether in education or our working lives? We have the means to do this with our gadgets and with new services that are emerging.

Companies are being forced to accept the “bring your own device” trend of workers using their own smartphones, tablets and laptops in the office and these devices contain a multiplicity of apps and sensors that can help us know our strengths and weaknesses, while optimising mind and body for better performance.

I have tried many of these devices and services for reviews, but my experience pales next to BMC Software’s Chris Dancy.

His day typically begins with him being woken by his Philips Hue lights. These are WiFi-enabled lightbulbs whose colour and intensity can be set with an iPhone app. His sleep patterns will have been recorded by a BodyMedia armband that has a range of sensors for monitoring sleeping and waking activity.

Stepping on to his Fitbit Aria WiFi scale, his weight is recorded and sent to an app. As he meditates, eats and gets ready for work, records are created for his activities, calorie consumption, mood, the temperature and humidity and what music he has enjoyed. Apps and services that enable this include Insight Timer, a meditation app that logs your progress, and WeMo, a home automation switch that will turn on and off lights and other devices, with remote control enabled through its own app.

Dancy also uses Lose It!, a weight loss service; Spotify for logging his music; Netatmo, a personal weather station that monitors air quality; MoodPanda, a mood diary, and the Wahoo Blue HR heart-rate strap. All of these have related apps for your smartphone.

During his working day, there is another smorgasbord of services to record activity. Evernote stores notes and bookmarks, Trello helps organise projects, Google Drive stores documents. A lot of this is stitched together by Zapier, a service that lets you automate tasks such as data collection between more than 190 online services. Shopping at lunchtime can be recorded by a personal finance app such as Mint. He also uses Placeme, a free app that automatically records your whereabouts. Like him, I prefer RunKeeper for recording walks and cycling – it uses my phone’s GPS to map my routes, which gives it an advantage over other pedometer-based accessories.

Dancy uses the Withings blood pressure monitor in the late afternoon, then takes to GetGlue to organise his TV viewing, before checking his various social feeds gathered by Jolicloud, setting Nest – his WiFi thermostat – and retiring to bed.

This all might sound a tad data-obsessive, but he points to the benefits of these life-hacking and recording methods. Data collection means I could forget everything he had just told me, he said. This was true – I have pulled a list of all these services from one of his online feeds rather than going through my notes.

He argues we will have to integrate the technology of our personal selves into the technology of our work and study, and while it may look complicated and too much trouble now, the capabilities of these services are growing fast, as are devices – the new Samsung Galaxy S4 phone has added sensors measuring temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure, for example.

The overall benefit is empowering people to optimise their environment for their day-to-day activities and making them masters rather than victims of their data. Unlike the mechanic plugging a computer into a car to read its vital signs, we would no longer be the human middleware between machines.

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Memory boosters: apps that log everything so you won’t have to

Evernote Food and Hello (Android and iOS, free)

Evernote has two apps for helping you remember precisely who you met and what you ate on your travels. Hello lets you take a photo of a contact and/or their business card, whose details will be scanned online and their LinkedIn profiles connected to the information. Evernote Food allows you to take a picture to remind you of what you ate, with time and location recorded. The app also allows saving of your favourite eating places and recipes.

Lose It! (Android and iOS, free)

Lose It! provides plenty of ways to record your meals to the last calorie. You can scan bar codes on products, choose from brand-name foods, search through lists of common foods, your own favourites or just add previous meals to the log when you repeat them. It asks for details of your weight, height and goals in order to set a daily calorie limit that counts down as you add the meals. Lose It! integrates with apps and devices such as Runkeeper and the Withings WiFi scale.

Placeme (Android and iOS, free)

Ever wondered where you were at a particular time? Placeme tracks your movements through an app that determines location on your smartphone by using GPS and WiFi hotspots. Everything is tracked automatically in the background, although you can edit the locations to pinpoint and record a particular restaurant, for example. Activity can be automatically uploaded daily to the Evernote note-saving service for later analysis.

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