Author and productivity expert David Allen, the man behind the Getting Things Done movement, says knowledge workers are stressed because they try keep track of all they have to do, even when it’s not what they’re focusing on. The key to productivity, he says, is “making sure that everything you need is collected somewhere other than in your head.”
Researchers have been trying to collect everything you need and put it somewhere other than in your head — first in bulky backpacks and now documenting them online — for years. The collection and storage of one’s life was taken to an entirely new level with “lifelogging.”
MIT media lab alumnus Sunil Vemuri logged his own life for two years as part of a PhD thesis. His company, Reqall, has spent the year since its DEMO07 launch learning what its users want. Today it unveiled an updated offering to the service that handles delegation, keyword-based tagging, intermittent reminders to strengthen recall, and an iPhone interface designed in conjunction with folks close to Apple. With the release, the firm hopes to tackle two of the biggest challenges in memory enhancement.
The first challenge is bulk. Most people aren’t willing to wear a bulky recording device all day long. Fortunately, we’ve surrounded ourselves with input devices, and Reqall lets users enter data via keyboard, SMS, phone, IM, e-mail, or iPhone application.
But the real value isn’t in collecting a user’s thoughts; it’s in organizing them. This is the second big challenge: Reminders aren’t useful if they can’t be organized and acted upon. “It’s necessary to have easy-to-use entry points but the differentiation is how you make it useful to people,” said Vemuri. “In a lot of the lifelogging efforts for the past five years, the challenge has been: What do you do once you have it there?”
Reqall uses human-assisted voice recognition, then filters messages by keywords, common phrases and people’s names. This makes the notes searchable and lets the system act on them. For example, “Buy bread” might direct the reminder to a shopping list; “Ask Kathy to send me the latest report” might delegate the action to someone else. Once the notes are organized, the service builds task lists and keeps track of your actions. “Keeping it simple is what tends to work for people,” said Vemuri.
Vermuri believes the system will ultimately get smarter as its users share more of their lives with it. Understanding how to organize content is “a mix of information retrieval, statistical mechanisms, clustering and lightweight analytics,” said Vermuri. “You get increasing benefits as you increase the data that’s in the system. There’s a nice return on investment as you contribute more and produce a better gestalt.”
What’s next for Reqall? Vemuri wants to expand social features like delegation to help entire organizations be more productive. “When I was at Apple, I was working on ‘organizational memory’,” said Vemuri. “How do you maintain the knowledge of a collective in a company with people’s influx and availability?”