The Quantified Year: A Family New Year’s Survey

A guest post from Tom:

How many states did you visit in 2011? Countries? How much do you weigh? What piece of music are you currently practicing? What magazines do you read? How many Facebook friends do you have?

I recently ran across a journal I kept in 2008-09. On January 2, 2009 there is a brief list of data points about our family at that time, and looking back at it is so much fun that I’m sharing the idea. Now is the perfect season to capture a brief snapshot of meaningful personal data, to be revisited in future years.

In the last decade a whole set of tools has emerged that allow us to obsessively track our personal data, share it online, and be voyeurs to the data streams of others. In fact it’s become almost expected that we share our personal data as a form of social bonding–don’t we all have friends obsessively posting about the food they eat, how far they jogged, or their Spotify music preferences on Facebook and Twitter? (Please… just… stop!)

Perhaps we have Nicholas Felton to thank–he serves as the grandmaster geek in this department, each year publishing a lavishly designed “Annual Report” of personal data that makes for fascinating reading, in an Edward-Tufte-Meets-Rainman kind of way. (And he now works at Facebook, which probably comes as no surprise!)

Our little annual family census is handwritten and personal and much less sophisticated, and we don’t keep it up all year, a once-annual check-in is enough. If you want to give it a try, here are a few suggested questions and categories.  In general, focus on data that will change over time, and are easy to capture. Personally I just pick a date (January 1!) and take a quick data snapshot, even if I know that I’m about to change the data by paying off a credit card or receiving the last magazine in a subscription.

Basic household data. What’s the big picture? Try to think beyond just numbers, and find data that will be meaningful to future-you.

  • Current address
  • Checking and savings account balance(s)
  • Retirement account balance(s)
  • Mortgage balance or current rent
  • Credit card balance(s)
  • Car mileage(s)
  • Current salary
  • Current pets
  • Newest appliance
  • Wifi network’s name
  • Last major household repair
  • Last overnight guest

ticketsPersonal data. Pick whatever makes sense to you. Again, try to dig a little beyond just the numbers. For example:

  • Weight of each family member
  • Height of each child
  • Child’s current GPA
  • Telephone number(s) of household members
  • Email address(es) of household members
  • Number of Facebook friends or Twitter followers
  • Most recent Facebook friend
  • Last person or family you shared a meal with in a restaurant
  • Last person you talked to on the phone for 15 minutes or more
  • Oldest living relative
  • Youngest relative

Cultural choices. These definitely change over time and give an interesting window into our past. For example:

  • Current favorite food, movie, television show, song, album
  • Last movie you saw
  • Last concert you attended
  • Last game you played (with whom?)
  • Tickets you are currently holding (travel, concert, show, etc)
  • Magazines subscribed to
  • Last blog you commented on (hint hint!)
  • Musical piece(s) that any family musicians are currently practicing
  • Favorite restaurant meal last year
  • Newest toy you acquired
  • Last city you visited

As more and more culture moves online, this category can also include a lot of data culled from your various accounts, for example:

  • Next three films in Netflix queue
  • Top three items on Amazon wishlist
  • Last website you bookmarked
  • Your last three Facebook status updates or tweets
  • Last text message you sent or received
  • Last three debit transactions

Aspirational data. These are data points for things you intend or hope to change. If you keep meaning to fill your house with more house plants, capture “Number of houseplants.” If you want to learn more juggling tricks, then capture “Most difficult juggling trick I can do.” (In my case I am firmly plateaued at Mill’s Mess!)

Looking back at the data I captured in January 2009, I’m reminded that we had a trip to Cancun to look forward to, as well as tickets to see David Sedaris that winter, and that Lyanda was working on Suzuki Volume 1, song 14 in her nascent effort to learn violin, while Claire had not yet started the cello. Lyanda wasn’t yet on Facebook, and I only owned three bicycles. Boy, how times have changed!

Happy new year.


    1. tom

      Well… I have a touring/commuter Miyata, a beater Specialized hardtail mountain bike, a tallbike, and about five other bikes, frames, or most-of-a-bikes that I intend to either build up, tear down, or pass on. So… no more than ten or so? Oh, plus one we grew peas on. Oh, and a unicycle I keep meaning to learn to ride. Right. I have too many!

  1. Like Amy, I think this a very interesting idea and would be a good little tradition to start. At one time we’d take a photo of the kids on the first day of the school year. Those have become very precious momentoes of the various stages of their lives. This census would be the same.

  2. My grandmother started a Christmas diary when I young. Every Christmas she would write about what had happened in the family during the year- new children, jobs, pets, a little update on each of us. When I got married (32 years ago), she gave me a bound copy and I continued the tradition with my family. My three kids, now adults, have a wonderful time reading it out loud to each other each year at Christmas.

  3. I love this idea! I’ve kept a list of hopes for the year every new years for many years now but have been a bit lax the past few. This year I created a list of intentions that are a bit vague but I love this as something tangible to look back on as time passes. Plus, the aspirational data piece helps capture goals! brilliant…

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