Your Life as Data: The Rise of Personal Annual Reports

Every time he drinks a cup of coffee, Dan Meyer makes a note on his phone. He does the same every time he opens a beer, turns on his TV or travels away from home. At the end of each month, he spends about three hours transferring these meticulously gathered notes into an excel spreadsheet.

Meyer isn’t obsessive compulsive, he just likes data. Like an increasing number of data geeks, he uses his personal life as a project — compiling small events into a sometimes elaborate, graphic annual report each January.

“It just speaks to the natural tendency to introspect, look inward,” Meyer says about his habit. “I do it for the same reason people journal or blog about their lives. I don’t see it different than that fundamentally.”

Dan Meyer’s 2009 personal annual report includes the number of text messages he sent, hours of TV he watched and his frequency away from home.

Not everyone who tallies his daily minutiae does it for the same reason, but most cite the same inspiration. Designer Nicholas Felton seems to have started the trend with his first personal annual report in 2005. By 2010, The New York Times had caught wind of the project. By 2011, Facebook was impressed, too. The company hired Felton to help design its new Timeline feature.

In the meantime, Felton actively helped launch imitations of his report.

“I can imagine how counting fireflies over the summer would make a poetic record of the way the summer was spent for an individual,” he writes on his blog, “but if 100 or 1,000 people are doing the same thing, does it start to tell an aggregate story that speaks more about global warming or habitat loss?”

“I believe that the Annual Reports have encouraged a desire among readers to discover similar things about themselves.”

To make it easier for others to track their data, he and co-creator Ryan Case launched an online tool called Daytum. The tool helps users collect their daily data and turn it into an infographic. People have used it to quantify their dogs’ lives, their baseball stadium attendence and even, in at least one case, the life of a couch.

“I believe that the Annual Reports have encouraged a desire among readers to discover similar things about themselves,” writes Felton, who declined to comment for this article.

In some ways, tracking your own life with such detail and then publishing it seems like an archetype of self-important broadcasting. But its practitioners agree with Felton that it is in fact an act of introspection.

“It’s just a fun way to learn more about myself through data,” says Jehiah Czebotar, who has been completing elaborate interactive annual reports since 2008.

Jehiah Czebotar sets up his computer to automatically photograph him each day.

A software engineer at, Czebotar incorporates data from Google, Mint and Foursquare into his personal record-keeping. Last year, he took a photo of every laundry receipt he received and set his computer at work to automatically photograph him at his desk throughout the day. The year before, he recorded every keystroke he made.

“After an entire year of pressing on keys all day long and all night long, I could have stored it all on one floppy disk,” he says. “My entire year of programming could fit on one floppy disk.”

Now there’s a way to put your work into perspective.

“I do it for the same reason people journal or blog about their lives. I don’t see it different than that fundamentally.”

Czebotar says he sometimes uses the quantified view of his life to start conversations, and turns the reports into programming challenges. Meyer, on the other hand, considers the benefits of his documentation to be solely intrinsic.

The teacher turned educational consultant (he has used personal data reports to teach statistics) has been keeping track of seemingly trivial details for six years. Sometimes he makes elaborate videos or infographics depicting the data. But several years, he has published only one graph from his mound of information.

Meyer’s 2010 annual report contains just one graph

In 2008, a graph titled “honeymoon” depicts his calls, SMS and tweets screeching to a halt at the end of July.

In 2010, another is titled “Number of Dads: 100% decline FY09 to FY10.”

In 2011, a third shows a huge increase in miles flown through the air since 2006.

“It really is just like journaling,” he says. “In the same sense that you wouldn’t go around talking about whatever you journaled. It’s inward focused, and occasionally I’ll have people take a look at it. I’ll post my annual report, and that’s kind of fun.”

“But for the most part, it’s just for me.”

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