Data Is A Mine And A Minefield

I’ve worked in data science and healthcare-adjacent fields for about five years now. I studied biology and marketing at Wharton, where I did pancreatic cancer research. And I will tell you, regardless of the stunning achievements of access and strength in tech, the healthcare field is not even close to keeping up. Let’s put this in perspective.

Right now, every company claims to have terabytes of data flowing in. And yet, no company I have ever been to, from startup to Fortune 500, has incorporated Bayesian statistics and really utilized the power of user-level data. These are people who are trained in statistics or computer science, people who are paid to raise the bottom line for the company and thus have enormous incentive to do so.

It’s not like Bayes is extremely complex or new, despite the confusing sounding name. Bayes died in 1761. So if we have terabytes of user-level data, why doesn’t each push notification target my soul directly? Why doesn’t each wearable have a health plan that knows the minute I will get heart disease from sitting on my butt all day?

It’s because collecting data is merely the first step. Data mining is very appropriately named: You get vast amounts of technology and manpower, churn the engines, dig deep and maybe find absolutely nothing. You may find that 100 percent of people behave one way and try to locally optimize, only to find that you shouldn’t even have that feature in the first place.

For example, is the answer to our dehydration problem that we should get a push notification every hour to drink water? Or is it that when we’re children, the schools themselves need to push healthy habits on us? Every day tech is fighting billions spent in advertising trying to get me to crave soda or vitamin water instead of what my body actually needs. None of these problems are actually data problems.

What data can do now is raise awareness. I didn’t know I spend some days taking 10 steps, then plopping down and watching Netflix. But now that I have my Fitbit, Strava (the run-tracking app) and the iOS 8 HealthKit, I can keep track of it and fight back.

The same thing is true with Vessyl, a cool tech-enabled accessory that tracks how much water you intake during the day. When I was pitching at the TechCrunch Boston pitch-off, one of the other companies named Neumitra was making an awesome wristband that tracks your stress level in real-time.

With the huge caveat of cost: We are before the point that we can 3D-print organs (which won’t be data heavy, anyway) but after the point where there is any excuse to not take care of yourself. Judging by the rate that tech is advancing (Microsoft Word) versus the same advances in healthcare (electronic medical records), we’ll be well past the singularity before we have accurate biomarkers for anything, so make your bets accordingly!