Does anybody keep a diary anymore? Come to think of it, we all do: in the computers, tablets, and smartphones we use. These gadgets record practically everything we do, sharing it with giant corporations and shadowy government agencies.
Now it’s our turn, thanks to a cool app called Saga, a not-so-secret agent that helps smartphone users build a digital diary of their everyday activities. And unlike the information collected by so many other tracking apps, the stuff collected by Saga is for your eyes only.
Available free for Apple Inc.’s iPhone and devices running Google Inc.’s Android software, Saga offers a painless introduction to “life-logging,” an up-and-coming tech trend in which people use digital gadgets to record everything they do.
Life-logging is mainly catching on with health and fitness buffs, who use apps like RunKeeper to keep tabs on their daily exercise regimens. However, the concept is getting more comprehensive as the gadgets get cheaper and easier to use.
Life-logging still requires some of the same self-discipline needed for a traditional diary, but Saga uses automation to lighten the load. It tracks your comings and goings, much like the popular app Foursquare.
But Saga does away with the tiresome nuisance of having to manually “check in” whenever you arrive someplace. Using the phone’s GPS, Wi-Fi wireless networking and motion-detection features, Saga figures out your location by itself, generating a constant stream of updates as you move through the world. You can also link Saga to work with other apps, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, to create an even more detailed record of your daily interactions.
Saga achieves this feat with remarkable efficiency. Because GPS is famously power-hungry, many location apps will clobber your battery. Not Saga; the battery in my HTC One phone barely seemed to notice the app was there.
Still, Saga isn’t foolproof. Instead of putting you in the local Starbucks, Saga may declare that you’re bending an elbow at the saloon across the street. Luckily, it’s easy to correct the software when it makes a mistake. You can also add notes to each entry to provide details about why you’re sipping coffee instead of bourbon.
You can also use Saga's photo feature to grab images of the places you visit. It’s an excellent way to “geotag” your photos without risking your privacy. Smartphone cameras can automatically tag your photos with the GPS location of where they were shot; lots of us turn off this feature so we can post pictures online without revealing where we’ve been.
But if you want that geographic data for your own use, you can shoot the photo using Saga, or with the popular photo app Instagram. Images appear inside Saga, which shows the time and location of each shot. But none of that data appear if you post the same image to, say, Facebook.
Saga draws in valuable data from other popular apps. You can set it up to show the entries in your smartphone’s calendar, a good way to compare what you were supposed to be doing at 3 p.m. with what you actually did.
And it works well with popular physical fitness apps. For example, it links to RunKeeper, which uses GPS to measure speed and distance when you’re running or walking. At the end of your workout, Saga displays a summary that includes an estimate of the calories you’ve burned. Or suppose you’re at a Red Sox game and want to tweet a message to your friends. Set up Saga to log all of your Twitter messages, and a copy of them appears in your lifelog.
The more apps you attach to Saga, the more useful it becomes. At a glance, you can see what you were up to on July 10; where you went, how long you spent at each location, the photos you shot, the messages you posted, even how fast you walked on your way to the subway.
Over time, it generates charts of your activities. How many hours did you spend at work or at home or at the beach last week? Or the week before that? Saga will tell you.
But Saga won’t tell anyone else; it vows never to sell your personal info. The company’s chief executive, Andy Hickl, told me the company won’t even “anonymize” the data and sell it to marketing companies. Instead, Saga makes money by doing software development for other app makers. Meanwhile, your data are yours, and nobody else’s.
Perhaps you don’t want a detailed record of your daily life. But the data are already being captured by spies, search engines, and social networks. Why shouldn’t you know as much about yourself as they do?
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.