On the Connectedness of Apps and Services

I use an awful lot of apps and services in my everyday life. More than most, I suspect, because I'm really into tracking what I do, and leaving an electronic breadcrumb trail behind me as I go. I tend to try and externalise the contents of my brain — mostly because if I kept it all in there, I'd explode! — which invariably winds up with lots of notes being written inside various apps. I've also taken to digitising as much of my life as possible, too. Having spent the past couple of years without a place I could really call home (which I've fixed now — yay!), it's been much easier to live life without having to cart around dead trees and bits of plastic. All my data is safely (well, relatively) contained in the aluminium shell of my laptop, and synchronised seamlessly into The Cloud.

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A little background

I use an awful lot of apps and services in my everyday life. More than most, I suspect, because I’m really into tracking what I do, and leaving an electronic breadcrumb trail behind me as I go. I tend to try and externalise the contents of my brain — mostly because if I kept it all in there, I’d explode! — which invariably winds up with lots of notes being written inside various apps. I’ve also taken to digitising as much of my life as possible, too. Having spent the past couple of years without a place I could really call home (which I’ve fixed now — yay!), it’s been much easier to live life without having to cart around dead trees and bits of plastic. All my data is safely (well, relatively) contained in the aluminium shell of my laptop, and synchronised seamlessly into The Cloud.

All these apps and services that I use connect to each other in some way. Some just use each other for authentication — to tell each other that I am me — but lots of them share data too. There are a couple of really interesting services (Zapier and IFTTT, for example) that provide mechanisms for me to create links between apps that have never even heard of each other, which opens up a whole new world of opportunities!

Losing track of what connects where

The trouble is that I’m losing track. I’ve forgotten how some of the services talk to each other. I can’t remember which ones share what data, which direction the data flows in, and what I can do with the information stored on each service. I haven’t got a clue what the data security and privacy policies are on each of these services, so I’ve got no real idea what they’re doing with my data. (Personally, that doesn’t phase me in the slightest. I work on the principle of Open Data By Default, which I should write something more about another time. But I’m conscious that it would be useful to know just what I’m contributing to when I log having drunk another pint of water.) I’m not going to list all the apps and services I use (just yet, anyway) but I thought I’d give you a bit of a flavour of what I’m talking about:

  • I capture my physical activity through the Apple Watch and iPhone. That data goes into HealthKit, which can then be accessed by numerous other apps on my phone. I also capture activity data with Moves which enriches the location data by associating it with places on Facebook, and being able to categorise journeys by mode of transport. For good measure, I usually check into places with FourSquare too.

  • I’m logging environmental data around the house, mostly with a couple of Elgato Eve Room sensors. This data sits in … honestly, I’m not quite sure where historical data sits, because I don’t think HomeKit directly supports it, but the Eve app does allow me to capture that information from the sensors.

  • I keep track (pun intended) of the music I listen to on Spotify or Apple Music. At least I try to. (This has proved to be tricky lately.)

  • I monitor my sleep with Sleep Cycle — which proved really useful a few weeks back, while negotiating a change of medication with my doctor.

  • I keep a rough track of what I eat and drink, and when I take my medication, just to make sure I’m not missing things out. (Did I mention that I have a bad memory? I forget…) My scales have Wifi.

  • Meanwhile, my computer keeps a rough track of what I’m working on, with RescueTime, while I log the hours I spend working in Harvest and manage my todo list with Trello.

  • I chuck bits of paper into Evernote, so I can find them again later. First drafts of pretty much anything I write goes into Day One (which I’ve talked about before).

  • And I do all the usual social media tweeting and facebooking and instagramming. And I’ve got email, and calendars, and the list goes on…!

You get the picture. There’s lots of data being captured there, and distributed to many different services. And I really don’t know how it all connects together! I’ve totally lost track. I strongly suspect some services that share useful data are currently doing so through a happy coincidence of having attached them both to yet another service (that I no longer use). So when things break, and data stops getting to the right places so I can use it, I’ve no idea how to get them fixed again.

A side project to document them

I’d like to embark on a little side project. I want to figure out – and write down – all the apps I’m using, what data they collect, from which sources, what they store, and what they transmit to third parties. Then I’d like to visualise this interconnected system in some way, just so I can get an idea of what it looks like.

Essentially what I’m looking to model, I think, is a Directed Graph. Each node in the graph would represent an app, or a web service, and the edges would describe the connections between those services. I think there would be nodes to represent the raw data that’s being collected, and the hardware that does the collection, too, with edges connecting the data to the hardware sensor, and the hardware sensor to the application which first deals with it. I’m not sure if that’s complicating things, though.

How do I express this model?

Now this is the bit I’m kinda stuck at. How do I best create this model, using tools that are going to allow me to build:

  • Some way of exploring the model, and reading the metadata about each node and edge, perhaps searching for nodes with a particular tag or category, or edges with a particular type of data flowing through them. Just being able to click through each of the apps to discover how they connect would be a great start.

  • I’d really like a visual representation of them all, too. I’m imagining a 3d model of interwoven nodes sitting in space where I can trace particular bits of data from hardware sensors, all the way through to the places it gets stored.

It strikes me that some sort of graph database (Neo4J is the only one I’ve heard of!) would be the ideal solution here. I’ve toyed with trying to model it in a relational database with a quick hack web front end (after all, Ruby on Rails is my hammer, so everything is a thumb, right?) but honestly, I’d rather not write code for this wee project. I’m wondering if some sort of hosted Wiki would do the trick. It would certainly address the first point, in that I can represent the nodes with pages, and the edges with links. On the downside, that doesn’t really allow me to attach much metadata to the edges — just stick them under category headings (e.g. “Here’s a list of the services that Trello can send data to”) on the node’s page — which would make it trickier to then scrape it into some other form.

I could probably draw something up in OmniGraffle to represent the overall model. But my graphical design skills are sorely lacking, so I suspect I’d just wind up with an ugly, tangled mess. Given the level of interconnectedness I’m expecting to see, I don’t think representing it on a 2D plane is going to work at all well anyway, and I haven’t a clue where to start with 3D tools.

Help!

If you had this problem, how would you solve it? What sort of tool(s) would you use? How would you explore the data, and how would you visualise it? (Has anybody else already done this, and saved me the trouble?)

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