How Data Will Help Me Keep My Resolution

Jan 27, 2015, 10:54 AM, Posted by Emmy Ganos

It's a brand new year and like many Americans, I'm thinking about New Year’s resolutions—specifically, fitness and exercise resolutions. People who know me well know how I feel about working out (Hint: I don't like it. Or do it). But I have lots of good reasons for wanting to start. I turned 30 this year, so I’m starting to age out of that Young Invincible demographic (#GetCovered), and realizing that I am, in fact, “vincible.” As I get older, and watch my parents age, it's starting to hit home that getting to a particular shape or size really isn't the point. The point is getting my heart and body in the best shape I possibly can.

So this year, New Year’s resolution time feels a little different. And as I start thinking about making some changes, I’m reflecting back over the last two Data for Health listening sessions I attended in Charleston and San Francisco. As a result, I’ve decided that it’s time to think about setting my New Year’s resolutions in an entirely different way--by using data.

I want my New Year’s resolution to be informed by data. Data about me:

  • How many hours did I sit today?
  • What's my resting heart rate?
  • Am I getting enough deep sleep?
  • How many steps did I take today, and how fast?

Of course, I’m in a very privileged position. I can afford to buy a fitness tracker that collects this type of personal data. Imagine if everyone in America had such data at their fingertips? We know from behavioral sciences that having access to data about yourself can lead to self-reflection and motivate change. Of course, we need to think about how our data is shared with us.

At the San Francisco meeting, I heard a very wise participant say:

I would like more data about my environment. I don't just want devices and gadgets thrown at me that tell me to change my behavior. It's condescending—and reinforces an idea of health as being only about personal behavior. It's very much victim-blaming."

She is absolutely right. We have a choice—we can use data to blame individuals for their poor health, or we can use it to help people lead healthier lives. Less information is not the answer, nor is less data sharing.

In San Francisco, I was surprised to hear Gary Wolf, the leader of the Quantified Self movement, passionately challenge the idea that historically disempowered groups are less capable of analyzing and understanding data about themselves. He shared the provocative point that we too often underestimate people’s intelligence, and think that we have to interpret data FOR people. Wolf’s point is that everyone deserves access to data about themselves, in whatever format it is available.

Greater access to data about our personal health could soon be a reality. Prices on wearable fitness trackers are coming down, and the proliferation of mobile technology is reaching every corner of society. In Charleston, Ida Sim of Open mHealth noted a jaw-dropping statistic: globally, more people have access to a cell phone than have access to a toilet.

I love the comparison of personal health data to toilets. At one point, not so long ago, it was preposterous to think that anyone but the very wealthy could afford a toilet. What’s more, toilets are perhaps the greatest public health intervention ever to have been developed. Imagine if the public health revolution in sanitation could one day be matched by a public health revolution in data—that the huge amounts of personal data being generated every day could be used not only to help individuals improve their health, but to improve the health of many.

There’s something very different about the way that we generate and use data today, and there is huge power in thinking about using data in new ways tomorrow—both at the individual level, to personalize health information, as well as at the population level, by aggregating huge troves of individual data being generated. We can rapidly increase the pace of learning about what works to help people live healthier lives.

As we enter a new year, I’m ready to start thinking about the future – my own future, my heart’s future, my data’s future, my community’s future, and the future of using data for health.

Stay tuned for the final report from the Data for Health listening sessions to be released in April, 2015.

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Emmy Ganos

Emmy Ganos

Program Associate