Stephen Wolfram. photo from stephenwolfram.comStephen Wolfram, the genius behind the seminal math software Mathematica, the ambitious book A New Kind of Science, and the quirky search engine Wolfram Alpha, has been collecting data on his life for a long time.

  • For instance, he’s been recording every single keystroke he’s made since 2002, totalling over 100 million (including 7 million hits upon the backspace key).
  • He’s got a complete archive of all of his email and calendar events going back to 1989.
  • He’s got 1.7 million files in his filesystem, with backups going as far back as 1980.
  • He’s kept and scanned (and in many cases OCR’ed) over 230,000 pieces of paper.

But rather than just pile up all this data, Wolfram has also plotted it, revealing some interesting patterns in his work. For instance, like many of us, he’s pretty much sending email almost every hour he’s awake, so plotting email timestamps by hour of the day reveals his sleep patterns.

He can plot the first appearance of new Mathematica functions in his emails, letting him get a rough idea of how creative he’s been over the years.

He can plot how many hours a day he spends on the phone, and how often those phone meetings tend to start on time (answer: quite often, when they’re calls with people outside his company, but not very often with internal meetings).

I’m not entirely sure what I’d do with this much data, but I am certain of one thing: I want tools to do the same thing. To heck with entering my daily calories and workouts manually, I want to track every single keystroke I make, and use that data for … something. It’s one of the most intriguing and obsessive applications of the “quantified self” theme, or what Wolfram calls “personal analytics,” that I’ve seen yet.

I hope Wolfram follows up his impressive post with another one describing the tools he’s used to collect and analyze all this personal data.

Distribution of various activities in Stephen Wolfram's life, as a stacked series of graphs