A decade ago, articles first started appearing in the popular press about “lifeblogging”. By 2008, the Washington Post reflected on the growing number of people measuring and recording information about themselves:
Oh, look, this guy’s doing this, too, and he’s actually making plots of it. Plotting was cool,”…. The ability to visualize trends over time… Bloggers go to extreme means to record infinitesimal events throughout the course of a day. Microsoft engineer Gordon Bell famously (at least in very small circles) wears a SenseCam around his neck, which automatically snaps a photograph every 60 seconds of wherever Bell happens to be and whatever he happens to be doing.
The article scoffs at this extreme “high-tech navel gazing” but then heralds the arrival of self-tracking, which includes not just the collection and plotting of data, but also “the analysis that goes on after the recording.”
We’ve made disappointing progress. The focus still seems to be on the sensors: Wallstreet has (historically) cheered companies like DexCom which developed technology to maximize the number, and minimize the size, of biosensors. While their market-approved product is for diabetes, it’s no secret that Dexcom believes the future is lots of sensors, for lots of reasons, on lots of people. And living laboratories have received glowing press for throwing sensors on just about everything: measuring how and when people move around the house, when they open the refrigerator, and even noting if they lay down on the bed alone or with a second “human-sized” mass.
These technological advances are important: they help lower the cost of sensors, educate the market, and prove out the technology.
But it’s time to move beyond making measurements and focus on making meaning. And not just making meaning, but making these data actionable.
We ought to apply our entrepreneurial mettle to figuring out what people should do, not just what they did, or what those data mean. Psychologist Barry Schwartz explains the paradox of choice: plenty of times, less is more. Instead of drowning people with data, we need to offer data-driven action-steps with outcomes like less waste, better health, or more happiness. Even Kevin Kelly, co-creator of the self-tracking movement Quantified Self, argues that when he puts the weather on tv, he doesn’t really want to know the temperature or the pollen prediction. And he doesn’t even want the meterologist to tell him if it’s going to rain. It’s simpler than that: Kevin just wants to know if he should carry an umbrella that day. Kevin doesn’t value the data as much as he does the analysis. But what he really values, above everything else, is knowing what actions he should take.
It’s easy to get caught up in new technologies that help us more precisely, rapidly, or seamlessly measure health data. And plenty of efforts have attempted to make it easier, faster, or cheaper to make meaning of peoples’ data. That’s a noble cause, but it’s not enough. The future is in helping people figure out what to do — or not to do — as a result of all this passive bio-sensing and beautiful graphing.
How do we orient to action? What does your customer, user, patient, or friend really want? If she wants to be healthier, do everything you can to take her to that point. Don’t just leave her with a nifty collection of elegantly-packaged and slickly-interactive data. Ask yourself “so what?” And keep asking. Ask until you offer something she can actually do that will help her reach those goals.
Make it meaningful. And make it actionable.
Written by Andrew J. Rosenthal, a Founding Hacker for Hacking Medicine.