A City-Wide Quest for Happiness, Powered by Sensors and Data

H(app)athon, a “global hackathon for happiness,” partners with Somerville, MA to survey and chart its citizens’ moods.

A City-Wide Quest for Happiness, Powered by Sensors and Data

What do you get when you mash up the “quantified self,” big data, and happiness trends? According to John Havens, a former EVP of Social Media at Porter Novelli and author of the forthcoming H(app)y: The Value of Well-Being in a Digital Economy, this mixture yields a brand-new “happiness economy,” where Nike+ exercise logs, Klout reputation scores and Recyclebank conservation data merge into feedback loops–both at a personal and collective level–to create a prosocial and perfect world where well-being is the new wealth.

Maybe this vision calls to mind a nanny state of frightening, near-Mary-Poppins-like omniscience and cheer. But it’s getting taken seriously in some high places. Havens has founded the H(app)athon Project to crowdsource his vision. They have just announced a partnership with the city of Somerville, MA, which is the only U.S. city to ask in its official census about citizens’ happiness–an effort similar to the nation of Bhutan’s National Happiness Index.

The city will pilot-test H(app)athon’s app, which combines survey questions about well-being with data collected automatically by phone (here are details on a similar effort). For example, a piece of software on a phone could record how many text messages you send and get a sense of how socially connected you are; or, by measuring the hours that the phone is turned on and in use, the software could make an extrapolation about how much sleep you’re getting (or not getting). Their current privacy policy, by the way, is located here; clearly H(app)athon realizes privacy concerns are going to be a major stumbling block for some people.

In the current phase of the project, people are being asked to sign up for a happiness survey that works like many academic studies on the topic: After completing an initial survey, participants will be pinged randomly for two weeks and asked to respond with what they’re doing and their current mood. The idea is to gather a fuller picture of what makes each person happy, to optimize the workings of the app both for individuals and communities.

The full version of the app, set to be released in March 2014, will not only track the user’s happiness both actively and passively through sensors and reveal shifting happiness data from around the world via a “global mood ring” display, but also connect individuals to opportunities to become happier, like visiting a local park or volunteering.

[Image: Flickr user Fechi Fajardo]

About the author

She’s the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her next book, The Test, about standardized testing, will be published by Public Affairs in 2015.



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