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5 Personal Data Apps We Can’t Live Without

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At Brooks Bell, we often talk about how data shapes our lives—not just in the work we do, but in our pursuits outside the office. Whether it’s training for a road race, tracking our sleep cycles or determining how much we spend on beer each month, we frequently approach everyday activities with the same data-driven mindset as we do our client projects.

Here are five tools that help us track our goals, measure our effectiveness and visualize our progress:

1. Nike+ Running (Free; iOS, Android)

I used this app to train for a half marathon last year, and Gregory Ng, chief strategy officer and chief marketing officer, uses it to track his goal of running 750 miles in 2013. He connects his square iPod Nano to his wristwatch, and it calibrates with his Nike shoe sensor to get a close reading of distance, pace and calories burned.

For each run, you can input mood, terrain, weather and—for the real running pro—the type of shoes you wore. Nike+ stores that information and presents it in a user-friendly interface, as you can see from Greg’s recent 13-miler:

Nike Plus screenshot

The recently released Nike+ SportsWatch has a built-in GPS to give more precise running details—but it’s not integrated with audio. “What I like about my current setup is that it will tell me that I have 400, 300 meters to go,” Greg said.

2. MyFitnessPal (Free; iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone)

Maybe in the future, you’ll be able to take a picture of your meal and get an automatic, precise nutritional breakdown. Until then, there’s MyFitnessPal. The calorie-counting app, which has a five-star rating in the Apple store, is used by CEO Brooks Bell and content strategist Jamie Least. You can set daily goals, record your meals and exercise sessions, and store your own recipes for future selection. MyFitnessPal has a bigger selection of food items than other apps, Jamie said, and while the app isn’t exactly sleek or beautiful, “what’s lacking in the interface is made up for by the large database.”

3. MapMyRun (Free; iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone)

Map My Run screenshot

The app name says it all: MapMyRun allows you to use the GPS of your mobile device to track your workout activities. Optimization analyst Taylor Wilson has been using it for about a year to keep track of his biking and running workouts. It logs miles, duration, elevation and calories burned. It also displays a detailed route as an interactive map. Taylor shares his times with other friends who have the same app.

4. FitBit (Price varies; syncs with some iOS and Android devices)

This health-centric tech company makes an array of products that track sleep, exercise, diet and weight. It also integrates with other tools and apps, including MapMyRun and MyFitnessPal. A few people on the Brooks Bell team use the Flex Wireless Activity & Sleep Wristband ($99.95), which tracks morning-to-night activities including steps, calories burned and sleep. The water-resistant band doesn’t have a screen; instead, LED lights show your progress toward pre-established goals. Flex automatically syncs to your computer or (select) mobile device to give you instant access to your data.

Brooks uses the Aria Wi-Fi Smart Scale ($129.95), which measures weight, body fat percentage and BMI. Like Flex, it syncs that information wirelessly to your computer or mobile device. Social is a big component of all FitBit products, but while Brooks loves the app’s style and “geeky interface,” she says, “I absolutely never share my results!”

5. Mint (Free; iOS and Android)
Several Brooks Bell staff members use this popular money management tool, which was acquired by Intuit in 2009. Mint pulls your financial information—bank accounts, credit cards, loans, investments—into one place. Auto-categorization lets you see where your money goes; with a few clicks, you can create a budget based on your spending history. You can also get alerts for suspicious transactions.

Mint screenshot

Ashley Harrington, project manager, says that Mint helps her visualize where she’s spending her money. “It also allows me to create mini-budgets for those high-expense areas to help balance out my spending,” she said.

Bonus: Excel

Our personal analytics tools aren’t all high tech. Taylor uses Excel for a variety of activities and goals. “As lame as it sounds, I plan everything using Excel—from my honeymoon to car to house,” Taylor said. “I use it notably in brewing beer, where I keep track of all the ingredients and processes to see what works best and apply it to the next batch.” Spoken like a true analyst.

What’s next?

As people’s interest in wellbeing and happiness continues to develop, I predict that mood and habit tracking will gain popularity. (Side note: This fulfills one of Brooks Bell’s company values, create happiness!) Tools like Lift, Moodscope and Critter.co encourage positive change and help users track and achieve goals—particularly ones geared toward emotional health—with support from friends.

All of these tools, from money management to diet journaling, fall under the Quantified Self movement. Just as marketers have realized that data is critical to building successful campaigns, so too have people discovered that numbers can help them gain unprecedented insight about various aspects of their lives.

What tools and apps do you use for self-tracking?

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