Interview with Daniel Nofal, Founder of Wikilife

I recently posted an article introducing Wikilife, a dashboard for your body data, which helps others as well as yourself.

It’s a great service and fits well into the discussion of making body data, open data, that has been taking place on the blog recently.

So I caught up with Daniel Nofal, Founder of Wikilife, to find out more about the service, why he created it, the future of both the service and the quantified self trend.

Read on for the full interview.

What is Wikilife?

DN: Wikilife is a non-profit institution that collects lifestyle and health information and share it openly and anonymously. The idea is to log little snippets of information about our life, keeping a health and lifestyle diary of ourselves and keeping our devices and apps data together in one place. If the information is centralized we can see the results of our habits in our health and learn more about what keeps us healthy (or not). In addition, having a backdrop of information to compare helps us as individuals to gain conscience on our own habits.

We are an organization based out of Boulder, Colorado but most of our team is in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We have an extensive team of scientists and doctors that guide our development. We have created a platform to be able to store and analyze the data using leading edge technologies for Big Data. In order to create the best possible platform we have developed an iPhone app that works with it so we could test and debug the platform with a real-world app that allows for comprehensive self-tracking.

Why did you choose to create the service?

DN: Three years ago my father contracted a rare blood cancer and passed away just 13 months later. Why did he get ill? It was a big mystery. Doctors offered treatments but no explanation on why illness happened in the first place. This experience made me realize how little we still know about health and what keeps us healthy.

Most of the information the public has is biased and partial. The scientific community has a lot of trouble to gain access to real data on the subject of health. But today there are technological trends that can disrupt this: mobile devices for data capture, cloud services for endless storage and processing capabilities, data mining techniques and, most importantly, the self-tracking movement that is generating tons of data around the world.

But this data is kept locked from scientists and it could be much more useful for the end-user if it could be combined with all the devices and apps out there.

What has been done with the data donate so far?

DN: The data users enter right now is used for providing valuable feedback in the app in terms of trends of their own habits. Our aim is to generate the tools for the whole of the scientific community to access the data.

We haven’t been able to open up our data as much as we should have, because the last two years of development have focused in the platform and what we call the meta-data to be able to encode this information in a useful way. Meta-data includes all the possible variables that can be used to log people’s lives: food, emotions, drugs, conditions, medical visits, lab tests, etc.

We have almost 100.000 items that can be logged today. We will also generate an interface to access this meta-data which is already a valuable resource. In addition to that we are using data sent out by devices and apps like Nike+, RunKeeper, FitBit, etc. to Twitter and we have collected almost 2 million logs. We are currently working on generating useful visualizations and tools to present this data to the general public.

How do you see the service making an impact in the future?

DN: In the future we hope Wikilife will become the main source of health and lifestyle information for the scientific community and the general public. It should reduce substantially the cost of data gathering for scientific research on drugs, and it should be a personalized source of personal information on how to remain healthy. As healthcare prices rise it’s becoming obvious than keeping the population healthy provides the best return on investment for the whole world.

We have several genetics scientists in our team and we believe that a combination of lifestyle, health and massive sequencing could be the answer to decode DNA’s influence on our well being. For example, we could analyze populations that rapidly gain weight with a moderate carb. diet and isolate the part of DNA that makes us obese. Treatments and drugs can follow.

We don’t see Wikilife as a replacement for clinical trials but as a source of new hypothesis and theories to be later studied using the traditional scientific method.

Can people help, beyond donating their data?

DN: We are currently working on a campaign to raise awareness for becoming a “Data Donor”. A concept that we believe will become as important as organ donation has become all around the world.

We want to integrate all major manufacturers of devices and apps into this idea, because it adds value to their products by turning the egoistic self-tracking movement into a community effort to understand health. Right now, spreading the world about Wikilife and Data Donation is the best way to help.

In addition, Wikilife is funded only through donations and the need for funds will increase over time as we expand out database and our team.

And lastly, what else is coming up with Wikilife?

DN: Two things. First, a redesign. We know that the current Wikilife app is not as easy to use as it should. We’ve worked very hard this last two years on it but we are currently doing a major redesign of the user experience because we have learned so much. If you think the concept has merit, bear with us and help us create new ways of doing this. The focus on the redesign will be on simple device and third-party apps integration, full graphical user interface and killer visualizations.

Secondly, we need more volunteers. There are a lot of people out there concerned about health and the social, economic and moral impact in our society. If you want to do something about it and you are an engineer, visualization designer, software developer, scientist, lawyer, UX designer, healthcare professional and want to help do connect with us. This is a monumental project that needs help from all these areas and more.

Many thanks to Daniel for taking the time to answer my questions. I strongly recommend you check the service out and donate your body data, skills or even a little money if you can. It’s a good cause and is relatively easy to get involved in if you are already self tracking.

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