Every year since 2005, graphic designer Nicholas Felton has produced a personal annual report, collating and quantifying an assortment of of facts and figures about his life. Illustrating each one with all manner of graphs, tables and beautiful, beautiful maps (including one that could be folded into an icosahedron), he has created an extraordinary snapshot of 21st century life, like some kind of iPhone-armed Manhattanite Samuel Pepys.
The popularity of these reports (printed copies of which are available from his website) has led Nicholas to join forces with fellow data-obsessive Ryan Case to create Daytum, a personal statistics recorder. Now anyone can keep track of their own bizarre habits and routines, and wrestle the control of personal data away from the loyalty cards and cookies that permeate modern life.
Gym Class Magazine managed to interupt Nicholas’ work for long enough to throw some questions at him.
We've never met, but I know you. I know you better than people I’ve known for years. I know that you listen to a lot of Atlas Sound, that in 2007 you won four games of pool and that your average speed last year was 4.39 miles per hour. Do you ever find it a bit scary that complete strangers know so much about you?
I suppose it should bother me more, but you’ve only gleaned what I’d like you to know about me. I’ve given you a lot of insight into my interests and habits and some nice factoids, but I reckon that it does not give you a complete sense of who I am, or what I’m like. In fact people that know my work well have the tendency to tell me that I’m not at all like what they expected. So while you have the intimate knowledge of my favorite band, the broader personal strokes of my life are missing.
The publication of your annual report is now an annual event anticipated by designgeeks the world over. As something of a “celebrity designer”, do you ever feel the weight of expectation?
Absolutely! I spend all year getting excited about my ideas for the report and love watching all the outings and adventures pile up from January to December. But when I start laying out the pages of the report I am a knot of anxiety. Do I have enough data? Is this report going to stand up to it’s predecessors? How will I ever make this better than last year’s?
Fortunately, things generally seem to come together. By the middle of the design process, I’m starting to get excited about elements of the layout that are working. By the end of the design process I am bursting with enthusiasm again and am eager to share the product with the community of people who anticipate and support the project each year.
How does your data-collection fit into your daily routine? Do you dash home from a bar and instantly record how many beers you’ve had?
The point of my report has always been to catalog my behavior and activities without unduly influencing these actions. It is my aim that the recording process be invisible, but this is of course impossible. For the most part, I have found that I can sit down each morning in my office and record the items from the previous day. Over the weekend, or on a busy night, I have found myself needing to take notes on occassion … and some of the more complicated tasks have required on-the-spot note-taking, as in my quest to determine every street I walked down in 2007.
These days, it pleases me enormously to record my entries on Daytum from the bar or the restaurant via my iPhone. I find it incredibly satisfying to have a tool that can keep my data up-to-the-moment and tally and present it for me immediately. I also recognize that I may be alone here!
So what can we expect from this year’s report?
I am really excited about this year’s report. For 2009, the statistics I would typically collect for the report have been catalogued daily on my Daytum page, forming a real-time annual report. Rather than using this material to form the printed report, I am relying on a feedback system I developed that encourages the people I spend time with this year to report on my activities, moods and our relationship. It is my hope that this data set will illuminate numerous aspects of my personality and social sphere that I would be uncomfortable collecting on my own.
I have a theory on your stat-nerdery: Manhattan is a neat, self-contained grid, covered in towers of varying heights. It’s basically a giant three-dimensional bar graph. Living amongst this spatial and geometric logic has influenced the way you see the world. Does that sound about right? Or were you just bitten by a radioactive statistician when you were a boy?
It’s a good theory, and I think the city has played a key role in the development of my reports. Clearly they are an attempt to bring order to a chaotic city and my place within it, but I can trace my stat-nerdery back even further. At art school I enjoyed mapping and graphing, and I think it all ties back to a radioactive book that bit me at a young age called Comparisons. This book is a visual dictionary of the tallest plants, fastest vehicles, oldest things and everything else a young visual thinker might wonder about. The pages of my well-worn copy are all trying to escape from the binding, and I keep returning to it’s pages for inspiration.
Daytum has really taken off. People use it to record all kinds of bizarre behaviour – do you have any particular favourites?
Certainly. I love the users who push the site into unexpected places... There is a dog using the site (charleylhasa) to track his interesting walk activites and the other breeds of dogs met. I was also thrilled to see another user (CBCV) adapt his page into a resumé.
What’s next? This time next year, are we all going to be walking around with Daytum-appified phones that record and quantify our every action?
It’s possible. We are currently building an API for the website. In the same way that the Twitter API has bred innumerable ways of accessing their site, we hope that this pathway will encourage our community to plug in more of the statistics they wish to collect.
Gym Class demands an exclusive. Tell us a quantifiable fact about yourself that you haven’t revealed before – the geekier the better.
I don’t think I’ve revealed this to myself before, but … Computers currently owned: 5 (4 Macs and 1 PC )
Thanks very much Nicholas! You can now add +1 to your “interviews conducted” tally.
Thank you Daniel. Consider it tallied.
This interview originally appeared in Gym Class Magazine #4.