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Track Your Trackers: New Tools Organize All Your Data

A artist's diagram depicts a stream of data and a human eye
The "quantified self" movement aims to integrate technology into the way we understand ourselves. (Image credit: <a href=''>Digital data photo</a> via Shutterstock)

A growing number of people are using devices and apps to track all sorts of habits, from how many steps they take in a day, to their eating patterns, and even their fertility cycles and sexual encounters.

These users are part of the "quantified-self" movement, or the use of technology to collect data about oneself. But with so many possible things to track, you might find yourself wanting an app just to stay on top of all your trackers.

A few companies are developing tools to do just that. These "meta-trackers," or aggregators, not only provide a big-picture view of your activity, but also aim to find hidden connections in all that data that ultimately might help users improve their lives.

"A single tracker is only ever going to give you a one-dimensional view of your life," said Josh Sharp, co-founder of Exist, a company that aims to launch one such meta-tracker early next year. "Activity trackers might track your steps and your sleep, and if you're lucky, your pulse and perspiration. But the real value comes in adding in all the other data you create about your life and finding correlations between these various activities that you weren't even aware of."

For instance, people might find out that they walk more on days they "check in" to a certain place — for instance, "walking a bit further to the cafe with better coffee," Sharp said. Or, they might realize they take longer to fall asleep when they tweet late at night, Sharp added. [10 Fitness Apps: Which Is Best for Your Personality?]

Tracking trackers

Sharp prefers to think of Exist as a "quantified-self hub" rather than a meta-tracker. When it launches, Exist will incorporate things like Foursquare activity, Twitter activity, apps that track movement, apps that track productivity, email, the weather, your mood and even the music you've listened to, Sharp said. Eventually, the company wants to add "anything that we can turn into a number and analyze," Sharp said.

The idea for Exist came about, in part, from co-founder Belle Beth Cooper's experience with an activity-tracker app.

"She wasn't getting anything out of the experience other than a number, and that number quickly stopped motivating her to be more active," Sharp said. "I became excited by the idea of pulling in this data and turning it from a boring number into amazing insights."

The value of tracking

A few other companies have come up with ideas for "meta-trackers". Tictrac says its app can pull information from about 300 apps, and put it all in one place.

The app lets you create themes (called "projects") for your data. For instance, all of your activity data can go into a project called "fitness," which includes things like distance traveled, calories burned, your weight and weather information. A project called "time management" can pull information about how many emails you receive, how many meetings you have on your calendar, how much television you watch and your stress level, according to The New York Times.

Tictrac also analyzes the information for correlations, and makes suggestions to users.

Another app, called CarePass, aggregates information from more than 20 fitness apps, including Fitbit and RunKeeper, and uses this information to help users set and track goals.

But over time, will someone eventually come up with one app that can "track it all"? Sharp said he doesn't think so. Although individual devices might provide more things to track — such as diet and sleep — other aspects of your life, such as time management and social media use, often go beyond a single website or app.

"Much of the real value we can provide to users comes from collecting data from these secondary services, like social media and productivity apps, so there will always be a need for an independent player who can pull all this together without bias towards a particular device or service," Sharp said.

Follow Rachael Rettner @RachaelRettner. FollowLiveScience @livescience, Facebook Google+. Original article on LiveScience.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael has been with Live Science since 2010. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.