“Alexa, how much do we pay the…”

A few months ago I wrote about the possibilities of integrating my family’s self-tracking data with smart home assistants, like the Amazon Alexa powered Echo Dot. One of my near-term self-tracking goals is to give members of my family the possibility of also deriving value from this data, and the Echo Dot represents one way to achieve this.


First, a brief overview for those of you new to this blog. A few years ago I started tracking key aspects of my family’s day-to-day well-being including symptoms, medicines taken, doctor’s visits, activity, vitals, finances and more. I use this data to conduct casual exploration and N-of-1 experimentation to address issues and opportunities affecting my family’s well-being—a process I refer to as Family Data Science.

My self-tracking projects are powered by ostlog – an open-source Personal Well-being Library.  ostlog works great for my needs, but not so much for my wife, who prefers simpler access to the information.  Today I rely on Microsoft PowerBI, generic SQL tools and other software for collecting and managing this data.   The Amazon Echo Dot opens the possibility of providing  natural language interface to query the same data.

We  own a single Echo Dot that sits on our piano in the living room. The kids use it to ask Alexa to play their favorite songs from their favorite films (e.g. “Alexa, play Trolls on Spotify”.). My wife uses it to stream her favorite radio station from Argentina (i.e. “Alexa, play radio maria”.)   As for me, the first step was to create a custom Alexa skill that responds to requests for well-being insights, queried directly from my self-tracking database.

Thanks to Amazon and Microsoft’s cloud serverless services (i.e. Lambda, Azure Functions), accomplishing this turned out to be a piece of cake.  This was the first Alexa request implemented:

Alexa, start ostlog

Alexa, how much do we need to pay the baby sitter this week?

With this new Alexa skill, my wife now has a hands-free way to access the self-tracking data, no special software required.   And with this personal finances related request, we no longer have to fumble through devices and software applications in order to retrieve this data (while the sitter waits patiently at the end of a long day and week!)

Imagining the Possibilities

Imagine starting your morning with your smart home assistant gently informing you to take it a little easier over the coming days. It suggests this because it detected an emerging acute cough and reminds you that during this same period of seasonal change over the past five years, you have tended towards multiple days with coughing and or bronchitis. Imagine how in the busyness of everyday, this small nugget of timely information helps you adjust and avert a more serious bronchitis, for example.

Looking ahead a few years, imagine smart sensors spread throughout the home, maybe embedded in the walls. These sensors casually record observations regarding your family’s growth, health and happpiness. They observe coughs and colds, stress or excitement, and other aspects you control. You do this because the data collected by these sensors feeds analytical processes to deliver highly personalized and timely well-being insights.

Recent advances in cloud computing, machine learning and the emerging discipline of Data Science are enabling these unprecedented opportunities, and allowing us to rethink how we nurture, encourage and care for the members of our family.  

Rethinking Seasonal Allergies

A few years ago I started tracking key aspects of my family’s day-to-day well-being including symptoms, medicines taken, doctor’s visits, activity, vitals and more.  I use this data to conduct casual exploration and N-of-1 experimentation to address issues and opportunities affecting my family’s well-being—a process I refer to as Family Data Science.

I was curious what this data would reveal about my ongoing struggles with seasonal allergies.  Since my early twenties, I suffered mild to severe chronic seasonal allergies. Symptoms typically begin in February in the form of mild itchiness and continue through March, April and May in the form of nasal congestion, fatigue, sleepiness, sinus pressure, dry mouth, sore throat, loose stools and more. I manage to hang on in good years, waiting for Spring to fully blossom and symptoms to slowly subside. In bad years, I require visits to the doctor’s office for sinus infection or similar respiratory ailments. Equally frustrating is the feeling of having wasted Spring’s most beautiful months battling seasonal allergies.

My aim with this project was to uncover insights that will help me adjust and better cope with seasonal allergies in the years ahead.

How did I do it?
My self-tracking projects are powered by ostlog – an open-source Personal Well-being Library.   For this project, I used ostlog to record daily symptoms and medicines to a single integrated database as illustrated in Figure 1 below.


Figure 1: Self-tracking with ostlog

The first step was to quantify the impact seasonal allergies were having on my health and well-being.   A quick analysis of my 2016 data revealed a distinct spike in allergy-related symptoms [1] during the month of April (see Figure 2).

Note that for this project I excluded seasonal allergies resulting from the onset of Autumn (i.e. October and November).


Figure 2: Monthly allergy symptoms 2016

The data confirmed what I have known for a long time—Spring allergies were at their worst during peak pollen months such as April.  What I didn’t realize however, was the exact nature of this impact.  Which of the various types of allergy symptoms was I suffering from the most?

To my surprise, digestive symptoms occurred almost as much as  respiratory symptoms in April 2016 (see Figure 3.) Before starting this project, I never directly associated digestive symptoms with seasonal allergies.

Figure 3: 2016 monthly allergy symptoms and anti-histamine usage

Based on these findings, I structured this project around the following three questions:

  1. What if any link existed between seasonal allergies and digestive symptoms?
  2. How could I reduce allergy-related respiratory symptoms?
  3. How could I improve antihistamines usage through Spring? (i.e. minimize use and their side-effects but maximizing temporary relief)

What Did I Learn?

I did some research on the link between seasonal allergies and digestion and found this interesting article by the Capital Research Vitality Center:

An estimated 80 percent of the immune system resides in the gut, and when digestive problems set in, immune problems are sure to follow. A chronically inflamed gut—which causes indigestion, heartburn, bloating, pain, diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel disorders, and more—sends the immune system into overdrive.

As a result, the body becomes hypersensitive and overreacts to stuff it shouldn’t, including pollen, grass, and other triggers associated with spring.

Because allergy symptoms frequently start with poor digestive function, the gut is a great place to start for relief.

I saw this approach in addressing gut health as a potential natural remedy for my chronic seasonal allergy symptoms.

So I started 2017 by eating significantly more anti-inflammatory foods including clementines, broccoli, and spinach.  I also eliminated the occasional glass of wine or beer to avoid the irritative effects of alcohol on the intestinal lining.

The next step was to find new ways to reduce respiratory symptoms. Here my research revealed a potential negative impact caused by excess mucus on the both respiratory and digestive systems.  During the worse months of allergy seasons, I tend to get congested, with mucus buildup making it difficult to breathe freely.  To reduce the mucus buildup, I adopted a very simple idea.  My wife and I regularly utilized saline nasal sprays on our daughters to help keep their respiratory pathways mucus free during winter cold and flu season.   I wondered if these same nasal sprays would help limit mucus buildup during allergy season. So as part of this project, I also performed two saline rinses a day through March/April/May 2017.

Regarding antihistamine usage (see Figure 3), the curious fact is how I refrained from taking any during the peak pollen month in April 2016.   In general I wanted to minimize or avoid their use when possible (especially their side-effects), but I also wanted to be more selective for those days when I really needed  the additional relief.    I changed my approach through the Spring 2017 by limiting doses to just one pill at the first sign of worsening allergy symptoms, or on those days when I knew I would spend the better part of the day outdoors.

To summarize, based on my research I tested the following hypotheses:

  1. By improving gut health, I would have a more effective method and natural remedy to reduce the effects of seasonal allergies.
  2. By keeping my respiratory pathways mucus free with the use of saline nasal rinses, I could improve respiration throughout Spring allergy season with possible benefits to digestive system too.
  3. By relying less on antihistamines as a primary remedy, but better timing their use when additional relief was absolutely necessary, I could further reduce the effects of seasonal allergies while minimizing the drug’s side-effects.

The Results

The results have been pleasantly surprising.   With the exception of a stomach virus suffered in March (most likely unrelated to seasonal allergies but accounted for in Figure 4), I’ve gone through the peak pollen months of Spring 2017 with a noticeable improvement in my ability to cope with allergies. (see Figure 4 and 5).

Figure 4: Comparing seasonal allergy symptoms in 2016/2017

Regarding the saline nasal rinses, of the three types of allergy-related symptoms that affect me the most (i.e. skin irritations, respiratory, digestive) the biggest improvement (see Figure 6) was the reduction in respiratory symptoms, which I assume is a direct result of these nasal rinses.  Bottom line, I was finally able to take in and smell the Spring air more days than not in 2017!

Regarding antihistamine usage, I took single doses at the first sign of worsening symptoms. Limiting their use also implied limiting their side-effects, which can be as frustrating as the allergy symptoms themselves.

Figure 5: 2017 Allergy symptoms and antihistamine usage
Respiratory symptoms 2016/2017

The results are positive yet more tests are needed in the coming years to confirm the effectiveness of this approach.  In general I feel very hopeful to have found what amounts to an effective natural remedy to better cope with Spring allergies.

[1] Symptoms are recorded and specially marked the first day they are observed.  Subsequent observations of the original symptom are not counted twice provided the original continues to persist at least once in any 7-day period starting from the date of the first observation, otherwise the symptom is recorded as a new occurrence.

Discovering the Value of Family Data Science

Digital innovations have given rise to the Quantified Self —a movement enabling individuals to capitalize on the insight-generating power of self-tracking.  People self-track to gain deeper insights regarding their mind, body and other aspects of their well-being.   These insights can help people make better day-to-day decisions regarding their performance, health,  and happiness.  For example, allowing a patient to preempt a doctor’s visit, or transforming a necessary visit into an informative data driven discussion [1].  Others do it to collect data required to train personal well-being algorithms that will soon integrate with their smart home assistants.

As a husband and father, I wondered how this could benefit my family too. Could self-tracking help us become more conscientious in our day-to-day?  Could it help improve our well-being? Three year ago, I started tracking various aspects of my family’s growth, health and happiness through a practice I refer to as Family Data Science. I wasn’t interested in tracking minute-by-minute calories, moods, or steps. Instead, I wanted a daily record of exceptional events that be analyzed across time and other dimensions.

My experience is proving valuable in three ways. First, the data allows us to recall events over longer periods and greater detail than our memory alone. Second, the act of self-tracking introduces a moment of pause and reflection in the busyness of every day, and this helps boost conscientiousness. Third, applying machine learning to this data enables unique integration opportunities with today’s growing demand for smart home assistants.

Conventional wisdom teaches us that saving for retirement by maximizing investment account contributions at a young age is a sound strategy for individuals and their future generations. Doing so allows interests to compound daily while also minimizing tax liability. In this era of digital innovations, Family Data Science is offering similar benefits in the area of health and well-being. Starting early allows families to make better decision through all stages of their life, and this leads to better outcomes. The value of data compounds over time as well, providing a larger body of evidence to enable deeper and more accurate discovery of insights.

[1] Topol E. (2015). The Patient Will See You Now: The future of Medicine is in Your Hands, Basic Books