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We Don’t Need More Data

Posted Jul 23 2013 12:00am

Data porn. That’s what Dave Sifr y said it was. I’m glad I finally have the right name for it the onslaught of data that has suddenly entered all our lives, but doesn’t help us at all, and may indeed hurt us. It may be data, but it’s not actionable information, and if we expect to change behavior, we are nowhere yet.

By data porn, he and I both mean the data that displays on our various quantified self devices, about which we can do nothing, because we have no one to tell us how to use it. But I’m going to expand my personal definition to include the data gathered by PRISM, by the health care system, and by advertisers, all of which looks “cool” and exciting, but can end up being dangerous if used incorrectly. Like real porn.

For example: I wear a JawboneUp. Every day it counts and collects the hours I sleep, the steps I walk, and if I bother to enter it, logs all the food I eat with its calories, nutritional value, sodium, and so on. But it never tells me what to change, and never tells me how to change. I’ve been wearing one of the leading five fitness monitoring brands for as long as they’ve all existed (Jawbone, Nike, Basis, Fitbit, and Pebble) and I never lost or gained an ounce, slept any more, or altered what I ate on the basis of their data although I did on the basis of other, unrelated and much more useful information.

Example #2: Obamacare incentivized physicians to get electronic health records, and hospitals as well. For the past few years, billions have been spent installing these automated workflow solutions in every medical office from the solo practice to the large hospital system. Vendors have made bank. Doctors now have all the data on every patient, plus the collective data from entire populations, at their fingertips. The theory was that EHRs would make health care outcomes better, and thus save the system money. But a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reveals

Providers with the EHRs saved an average of $5.14 per member per month over the 18 months after implementation, representing a 3.40% savings. Ambulatory cost savings accounted for $4.69 of that amount.

But health costs still managed to increase for the EHR and control groups just not as fast for those with EHRs. Total costs increased an average of 0.78 absolute percentage points in the intervention group and 1.09 absolute percentage points in the control groups (P=0.135).

That’s bupkas, to use the Yiddish word for trivial. At this rate, the expenses on the EHR aren’t recouped for seven years, and in the mean time, the doctor spends half of his precious 12 minutes with the patient entering data. You should see these doctors glued to the computer while the patient sits –patiently–while the physician types.

It gets worse when you think about the “false positives” possible from all the data being gathered by PRISM, or even by retailers using retargeting and other sophisticated techniques to target customers and track them on and offline. I think retail has even more sophisticated systems than PRISM, because retailers have gotten my number and follow me to Facebook all day long. Heaven forbid I visit a web site and leave (even if I’ve bought). I’ll see ads for that product over and over again for weeks. That means you, Zappo’s.

But is that retail information actionable? Probably not. Will I change my behavior? Probably not. I have a finite amount of money and time, and I’ll choose to spend it the way I wish. So will you.

But consumers, who were happy getting tracked in return for free content, are getting pissed. All the major browsers are trying to introduce default “Do Not Track” options, in response to consumer demand for greater privacy, demonstrated by the use of Ghostery and ad blocking software. The advertising industry, which fought the WWW3 Consortium over self-regulation for advertisers (cookies), has pretty much given up, and is trying to figure out how to target consumers without resorting to third party cookies.

We’ve killed the goose that laid the golden egg. The internet gave us the capacity to gather all this data, but we’ve been punished for putting it to unsustainable and nefarious uses. Now people are angry, and rightly so. I’m sure Jawbone is going to sell my information along with everyone else’s, and it will be crunched by some Hadoop guru, to find out whether people my age are still customers for running shoes.

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