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January 13 2012

Top Stories: January 9-14, 2012

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

What is big data?
It's the hot trend in software right now, but what does big data mean, and how can you exploit it? Strata chair Edd Dumbill presents an introduction and orientation to the big data landscape.

Can Maryland's other "CIO" cultivate innovation in government?
Maryland's first chief innovation officer, Bryan Sivak, is looking for the levers that will help state government to be smarter, not bigger. From embracing collective intelligence to data-driven policy, Sivak is defining what it means to be innovative in government.

Three reasons why we're in a golden age of publishing entrepreneurship
Books, publishing processes and readers have all made the jump to digital, and that's creating considerable opportunities for publishing startups.

The rise of programmable self
Taking a cue from the Quantified Self movement, the programmable self is the combination of a digital motivation hack with a digital system that tracks behavior. Fred Trotter looks at companies and projects relevant to the programmable-self space.

A venture into self-publishing
Scott Berkun turned to self-publishing with his latest book, "Mindfire." In this TOC podcast, Berkun discusses the experience and says the biggest surprise was the required PR effort.

Tools of Change for Publishing, being held February 13-15 in New York, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Register to attend TOC 2012.

January 11 2012

The rise of programmable self

Programmable self is a riff on the Quantified Self (QS). It is a simple concept:

Quantify what you want to change about yourself + motivational hacks = personal change success.

There are several potential "motivation hacks" that people regularly employ. The simplest of these is peer pressure. You could tell all of your co-workers every morning whether you kept your diet last night, for instance. Lots of research has shown that sort of thing is an effective motivator for change. Of course, you can make peer pressure digital by doing the same thing on Facebook/Twitter/Google+/whatever. Peer pressure has two components: shame and praise. It's motivating to avoid shame and to get praise. Do it because of a tweet and viola, you have digital peer pressure motivation.

Several books have recently popularized using money, in one form or another, as a motivational tool. There is some evidence, for instance, that people feel worse about losing $10 then they feel good about earning $10. This is called loss aversion, and it can easily be turned into a motivational hack. Having trouble finishing that book? Give 10 envelopes with $100 each to your best friend. Instruct them to mail the envelopes to your favorite (or most hated) charity for each month that you do not finish a chapter. Essentially, you've made your friend a "referee" of your motivational hack.

So, is there any potential to automate this process? To use software to hack your own motivation? One of the coolest applications that does just that is, which is designed to electronically manage contracts you make with yourself.

But that, by itself, is not programmable self.

Programmable self is the combination of a digital motivation hack, like Stickk, with a digital system that tracks behavior, like Fitbit (that's the Quantified Self part). You have to have both. Recently, for example, Stickk started supporting the use of the Withings Scale to support weight entries. Withings is a Wi-Fi-enabled scale that broadcasts your weight automagically to the Withings servers. From there, Withings will send your weight generally wherever you want: HealthVault, other personal health record (PHR) systems, or over to With that feature, Stickk became a programmable-self platform.

Stickk is pretty old, and Lose it or Lose It, which is focused specifically on losing weight, is also ancient in Internet time. It launched in 2009. The site requires you to take a picture of a weekly weigh in (you actually photograph the scale) and send it in. That counts as digital tracking, but I wonder if it supports Withings (or if it will).

In October 2011, Beeminder launched, billing itself as a direct Stickk competitor, but "for data geeks." Indeed, it is a little geeky: Beeminder is focused on weight change and other goals that are numerically similar to weight gain. The notion is that there is a proper path for the improvement of certain numbers — as well as a little "data jitter" to eliminate — in order to improve. Beeminder also refers to the classical term for the lack of self discipline: akrasia — so bonus points for that.

Last November, The Eatery launched from Massive Health. Massive Health is a massively funded dream team, and their first app is a classic programmable-self experiment. You simply take pictures of your food with your camera (digital tracking = photos) and let others rate your food choices (motivation hack = praise/shame). It's a good idea, and you can expect lots more from Massive Health that qualifies as programmable self.

Recently, GymPact made a big splash, even ending up in a New York Times blog post. Gympact is an iOS (soon Android) app that lets you check in at the gym. If you fail to check in, you get charged a fee. If you do keep your commitment to go to the gym, then you also earn some of the money from all of the people who failed to go to the gym.

Finally, Buster Benson and Jen S. McCabe are working on, which might be the first of the programmable-self platform plays.

All of these count as programmable self. I seriously doubt that any of these companies were aware of my original interview about programmable self or would even be comfortable with the term, which sounds pretty geeky and devious. (Which is, of course, why I love it.)

Other friends of mine in the serious games/games for health/gamification movement would probably count as programmable self, too. But some of them seem convinced that "fun" can have a deeper component in motivation then some of the more aggressive techniques that I, and other programmable self people, seem to favor. I should also mention that I am hardly the only one in the QS movement stumbling in this direction.

I will be writing about programmable self on Radar occasionally, but there is a lot more going on than I can track here . That's why I've also made a Tumblr about the subject and filled it with all of the "software for behavior change" goodness that anyone can take. My @fredtrotter Twitter account is mostly focused on programmable self as well.

Most importantly, I want to hear about what you have tried to do with your own personal change hacks, especially those that impact your health in one way or another. For that, I have set up a Programmable Self Google Group. Please join us. Some of the top minds in behavior change are already subscribers.

The Quantified Self movement is not primarily about the "tool creators" who make stuff for people to use, but a movement of users who defy the boundaries of tools and manage to create innovative quantification tools on their own. Many of these efforts also count as programmable-self approaches. No discussion of programmable self can ignore the work of individuals, so here is a decidedly non-exhaustive list of people innovating in this space:

Strata 2012 — The 2012 Strata Conference, being held Feb. 28-March 1 in Santa Clara, Calif., will offer three full days of hands-on data training and information-rich sessions. Strata brings together the people, tools, and technologies you need to make data work.

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20

July 15 2011

Top stories: July 11-15, 2011

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

What is HTML5?
HTML5, when used both as the 21st century web suggests and as the original HTML specification allows, is best at interconnecting things.
Who leads the Java parade?
Are any of the companies in the Java community willing to exercise technical leadership? Mike Loukides says the real leader needs to stand up.
If you can quantify the self, can you also program it?
Fred Trotter is examining the Quantified Self through the lenses of motivation, behavioral economics, and software. He expands on each of these topics in this interview.
Why files need to die
The idea of files and folders no longer fits today's connected world. It's time for new ways of organizing our data based on what data means, what it relates to, and how we think about the world.
Sustainable publishing is a mindset, not a format
Dennis Stovall, director of the Publishing Program at Portland State University, discusses the state of sustainable publishing and who's doing it right.

OSCON Java 2011, being held July 25-27 in Portland, Ore., is focused on open source technologies that make up the Java ecosystem. Save 20% on registration with the code OS11RAD

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