The adage “if something is free, you are the product” refers to the practice of business surreptitiously gathering valuable data about its customers. This post is about a different situation, namely voluntarily making your data available to business or government because you believe it is personally or societally valuable. In this blog I’ll recount some of my experiences doing that.
In several cases, I have signed up with businesses that use my data to build databases because the data is also valuable to me. These include Google maps on my telephone, Fitbit, and my CPAP provider. Google Maps’s monthly travel reports remind me, in great detail, how geographically circumscribed my life has become. On many days I walk or run, and the Fitbit tells me how far, with a weekly recap. Taking into account weather, obligations, and injuries, I walk or run as much as I can, so whatever the Fitbit tells me is encouraging. I could increase my Fitbit score by wearing it all day, particularly because I don’t stay seated for too long and often climb stairs. However, I would rather wear an heirloom Omega watch bequeathed me by my father. Yes, I could wear both, but that seems very nerdy. The key piece of information the CPAP machine provides – my hourly average number of apneas – is something I can’t directly control – if I could, I wouldn’t have any. The machine does tell me other things, such as air leakage from the mask, that I can influence.
As a retired person, I have more time available now, and I can use little bits of it to provide data about myself for research projects that I believe are socially valuable. The value comes from compiling my data and hundreds or thousands of other people’s and using it all to increase our understanding. I don’t expect the research project to interpret my data and make it available to me in the way Google Maps and Fitbit do. However, I hope that the research projects will inform me of their ensuing publications so I can share what they have learned.
Bleeding for Science
One research project I’ve written about before is the Ontario Health Study, a longitudinal study of 225,000 people. In the last decade I’ve completed several detailed questionnaires about my overall physical and emotional health. In addition, I’ve answered questionnaires about the pandemic that ask whether I’ve had Covid and, if I have, its impact on my physical well-being, as well as broader questions about how it has influenced me and how I’ve adapted.
I’ve also been part of a smaller study of about 10,000 that has provided three blood samples to test for Covid antibodies. The latter have been implemented by the study sending a package in the mail containing a lancet for a pinprick, and my sending the blood sample on a treated paper by return mail. The antibody study did tell me whether I had antibodies, but not the level. The significance of my or anyone else’s level of antibodies would come from the completed research.
Sex and the Government Statistical Agency
I received an invitation to participate in Statistics Canada’s Pilot Study on Everyday Wellness. The StatsCan study appears to be based on the Mappiness Project, an ongoing British study of in-the-moment happiness. The Canadian study is implemented through a phone app called Vitali-T-Stat that asks participants several questions about personal wellness as well as where they are, what they are doing, and whom they are doing it with. Participants are reminded to use the app at least twice a day while participating in the study for a month. The study, undertaken in collaboration with the Canada Council for the Arts and the Department of Canadian Heritage, is particularly interested in whether participating in arts and culture activities influence well-being.
As a quantitative researcher, I’ve been thinking about the study’s methodology. It asks about these five aspects your well-being each on a ten-point scale: happiness, anxiety, relaxation, focus, and control over your emotions. The study doesn’t compare scores across people, but rather attempts to explain each individual’s fluctuations in well-being and then derives generalizations by aggregating individuals’ results. I know there are statistical techniques to do this, but I no longer remember the details.
I’m somewhat skeptical about an approach that attempts to explain differences in momentary well-being solely in terms of what individuals are doing and with whom. Other factors – for example, the well-being of people you care about, the performance of your investment portfolio, and breaking news – are constantly changing and could also affect momentary well-being.
In addition, some of the activities listed in the study are ambiguous, in that they could generate radically different levels of momentary well-being on different occasions. An obvious one is watching television. I experience much higher well-being watching CNN’s foodie travelogue “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” than watching its standard palate of crises, or watching the Maple Leafs’ latest post-season disaster.
Vitali-T-Stat has a long list of activities, with a final category of “other.” Having sex is not a category. The Mappiness Project, however, tells us that it is one of the activities that generates the most well-being. Undoubtedly, a government statistical agency including “having sex” as a specific option in a survey would generate snarky headlines and denunciations from privacy advocates, civil libertarians, and plain-old libertarians. One could imagine a fortunate participant in the StatCan study several evenings a week recording high levels of happiness in the company of their partner while involved in an “other” activity. I leave it to the statistical savants at StatsCan to interpret participants who are othering.
I eagerly anticipate reading the findings of the Ontario Health Study and StatsCan’s study of everyday wellness. I wonder whether, with all the noise in the data, it will be able to detect any independent impact of artistic and cultural activities on individual well-being. Regardless of that outcome, I look forward to other opportunities to produce data for the public good.