Has the self-tracking movement gone too far? Indiana University released a smartphone app that allows users to report their sexual behavior. The idea is that this data could be aggregated for research: they plan to make the anonymized data that they collect available to researchers:
I’m sure you all rushed to sign up, right? Who in their right mind would knowingly report about their sexual activity, and then trust it to some grad students to keep it anonymous?
From the research side, we have to be very careful analyzing such data. Clearly there is a bias in the type of person that will download such an app and report their behavior. This was a fatal flaw of the original Kinsey Report – the groundbreaking large scale sex survey done in the 1950s. Kinsey gave his sex survey to anyone who he thought would be likely to do it – he ended up with lots of college undergraduates and prison inmates (really!) – clearly *not* a representative sample. Kinsey’s well reported estimate that 10% of adults are homosexual was frought with error and eventually widely discredited. (most experts agree the number is between 1 and 4 percent, depending on the definition). I dont know how the makers of this app plan to get around such self-selection biases.
But who cares about what other people are doing in bed? Well, lots of people do. For one, it’s very interesting! Check out this site analyzing the sex practices of 1000 representatively selected Brits. Go ahead…we’ll wait for you to come back, even if it takes some time. Fascinating, no? And what’s the first thing you do on a site like that? You probably compared your own personal habits, numbers, practices to that collection of people. We all want to know how ‘normal’ we are, right? I think that is a positive development — there may be people out there who think they are unusual, or deviant in some way. Data like this makes it clear that no matter how freaky you think you are, there are likely to be lots of other ‘normal’ people out there just like you. That can be powerful – especially for adolescents who are struggling with their sexuality and concerned that they might not be ‘normal’.
So although it might seem crazy to collect this kind of data, and even crazier to volunteer to provide this kind of data – I think it is *exactly* the type of data that is going to make the data revolution so powerful. When people start providing detailed personal experiences about their bodies, their diseases, their symptoms, their reactions to drugs, their health care experience, and yes, their sex lives, we can learn so much – and so much more efficiently – than via an expensive NIH funded clinical trial. But, we do have to watch out for those pesky biases (which is why we statisticians will still have jobs.
So, I hope I have convinced you to do your part. If so, you too can download the sex tracking app from kinseyreporter.org:
Data collecting has never been this much fun.