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Jen Lowe - One Human Heartbeat

Jen Lowe - One Human Heartbeat

Data Scientist.

Posted Photo by Caren Litherland. Questionable cropping by me.

Who are you, and what do you do?

I’m Jen Lowe. I do different things. I’m a data scientist / data communicator, which means I search for surprising things in large data sets and then create useful ways of communicating those findings. I teach Math for Artists at ITP. I speak about data in society. I also read, cook, and walk a lot.

[Editor’s Note: Jen also co-founded The School for Poetic Computation, which is pretty neat.]

What is One Human Heartbeat?

It’s a website that shows my heartbeat from 24 hours ago. It updates every minute. It also counts the number of days I’ve lived and the number of days I (statistically) have left to live.

How was it built?

I spent some time searching for the right tech that would keep track of my heartrate and allow me to access the data. It turns out it’s possible to access the data from the Basis API, so I bought the Basis watch based on that. Then it was just a matter of fitting 29,646 days on a page. I made the days graphic in Processing. The heartbeat is made by changing the opacity of a div using javascript. (I’m working on updating the equation to match an ECG of my own heart.) I upload my heart rate data to a database daily. The page grabs a day’s worth of data from the database and then updates the heartrate each minute.

Were you interested in tracking those metrics about your activity for their own sake/personal use, or did you buy your Basis watch with One Human Heartbeat in mind?

Both. I’ve been managing anxiety since going through some traumatic events in the past couple of years. I had a revelation this winter that I’d tapped out my ability to manage the anxiety with my brain, and instead I needed to start fixing the anxiety in my body. (Incidentally, if you’d like to have a revelation about your body, I recommend a 14 hour car ride across the Argentinian summer desert without air conditioning.) When I got back to New York, I noticed my heartrate was out of control and wondered if there might be a way to check it regularly and use it as a rough indicator of anxiety.

That’s the personal side. On the web side, I’m a big fan of small gestures; putting a heartbeat online appealed to me as a very small way of measuring a life. The web project was the motivation for buying the watch - I wouldn’t have tracked my heart rate this long without the pressure of keeping the page up to date.

Do you watch the other data you get from the Basis?

Not really. I didn’t even remember it was a watch for about a month - I kept pulling out my phone to check the time! I notice if I’ve walked a really long distance, and I look at the sleep data daily, but mostly it just tells me what I already know.

Do you think putting this data online affects the nature of collecting it?

Absolutely. Putting the data online encourages me to keep up the habit of collecting it. I don’t want to die online.

It’s also important to note that this isn’t the same of as someone sharing their steps via a Fitbit, or their bike ride on Strava. It’s not a data dump. This is an experience you designed where you picked specific types of data to display and represent visually. What are the most important things you’re trying to communicate with the project?

I’m working on a book proposal and it’s a gnarly process. I picked up Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life for some inspiration, and the epigraph is Emerson:

No one suspects the days to be gods.

That’s the most important thing I’m trying to communicate. I’m just being more obtuse and using a lot more tech.

Besides that, I hope it acts as a provocation that a webpage can be anything you want it to be. Lots of people respond to One Human Heartbeat with: “I don’t know what this is” or “I don’t know what to call this.” That makes me happy. I’ve been blathering on for years about wanting to create new genres, so if there’s no name for what I’m making then maybe I’m on the right track.

I viewed the project as meditation on life and our relationship with time, as well as being an illustration of how technology can create intimate interactions from a distance. But I read your Fast Company interview, and that was written from the perspective of access - Who is recording our data, what they’re recording, what rights individuals have to see it. Is it both? How do you think One Human Heartbeat fits into the debate on collecting and releasing data?

I think it’s both, but I don’t think people will experience it as being about data access and privacy. I didn’t build it to bring that up, it’s just a theme in my thinking and working that pervades what I make. I’m very aware of maintaining my privacy online, and I like the way this plays with intimacy and privacy - the heartbeat is an intimate measure, but I’m not giving up much privacy by sharing it.

I’m just curious, does the pulsing background actually change based on the BPM?

It does! It’s pretty accurate locally, and when I test the site from my machine. It won’t be accurate for everyone, but it does at least slow down and speed up based on the beats per minute.