Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Brave New World of Small Data

If you are like me, you see a bunch of interesting thoughts, blogs and articles every day that you hope to get around to reading. Here’s my answer – 28 seconds of my learning around a topic I have been exploring. If you think the 28 seconds justify reading more, I believe you will get a “useful insight for your day.” Jeff

28 Seconds of Insight on Small Data:

  1. Quantifiable, personal data (what I have labeled Small Data) takes the generalization out of life – “I am pretty active…” is proven to not be accurate when you now understand exactly how inactive you are on a day that you sit in meetings from 8 am to 5 pm.
  2. What gets measured gets managed, especially for goal-oriented people. That is as true in personal endeavors as it is in professional endeavors
  3. Instant and immediate feedback changes behavior. People will play the “game” towards beneficial results (just as they will toward non-beneficial results).


The Deeper Dive Into Small Data
Big Data is the buzzword of the day. Conferences are developed around how to harness Big Data. Consulting firms are building units to help companies integrate Big Data into their operation. CEOs talk about Big Data with their board and how it will revolutionize their business.

I agree about the nature of data and data analytics. The insights that can be derived across massive data sets about the patterns and tendencies of us all are between amazing and a little startling. The amount of data being developed grows at an astronomical amount every data. The impact of data continues to be seen not only in online site like Amazon.com (People who bought X also bought…) but in entertainment with Netflix and your DVR; politics with microtargeting; and across the marketing spectrum. We have moved from a world of mass media to a world of marketing to one. Nate Silver’s book on statistics and their application is still one of my favorite books of all-time (adding the recently departed Tom Clancy to that list!)

But I have become obsessed with what I am calling Small Data – the impact of being able to track things about myself and my life that I was never able to track. Data at an individual level. Data that was never collected in the past that can change individual behavior. That obsession started with a gift of a Nike FuelBand from my previous colleagues as I was beginning my new role as the CEO of Delta Dental.

The Nike FuelBand is a wristband that measures how often and how intensively you move. It tracks not only calories burned through activity and steps as some do, but a custom-developed score called “Fuel.” It also has a functional watch. As you wear it, you can see your activity throughout the day with a light band display and over time when synced with the app on your phone. You can custom set your goal of Fuel points.

My goal has been 2,000 Fuel points. And I was on 53 day streak of hitting 2,000 points (my streak broke a couple of weeks ago on vacation when I came up a few points short, but that is another story).  This is where a goal-oriented, Type A, borderline obsessive-compulsive person discovers the power of real-time feedback regarding activity.

Here’s my defining story: I was at the September board meeting of Delta Dental in Mason City, Iowa. It was my first board retreat and our management team has spent considerable effort to make sure we are prepared to outline a strategy in a time of transformational change in the health care and insurance world. We are at the Park Inn, the renovated Frank Lloyd Wright hotel (which by the way is spectacular). After the second of three days of meetings and a board dinner, I find myself a few hundred points short of my goal. I was currently on a 30+ day streak of hitting my goal. After the dinner meeting, I tell Lisa that I *need* to go for a walk. She is kind enough to walk around the park and downtown Mason City until I hit my mark. Granted, our board is meeting at 8 am in the morning for a significant discussion that I am leading on our future strategy. Yet the Fuel point goal MUST BE MET!

While you might read that last paragraph and laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of a CEO going for a walk to hit a made up goal, late at night, before an important meeting, think about the broader issue. It had become a goal/game that I cared about (my streak). It was better for me to take that ½ hour walk than just go to bed.

Now extrapolate that action to the larger world. One of the largest health issues in the United States is obesity. A particular issue that is gaining needed attention is child obesity. If my children are an indicator of the larger population, they are both digitally wired and love games. The instant feedback loop of points and a goal that needs to be met is important in a digital (and physical) world. Foursquare and others have made successful businesses of around concept. I live professionally in the health care/insurance world, focusing on the dental community. I noticed earlier this year that SonicCare has now made an electronic toothbrush that tracks how long you are brushing your teeth and can download that data to your smartphone. For years the dental community has promoted “2+2” – brush twice per day for two minutes. Sure, I do that…. Really? Let me download that data into an app and show you whether you really do.


There are clearly dangers in Small Data. Personal data should remain personal until I allow it to go somewhere. The economic implications of more data can be significant. Data privacy should be an important part of this. But my learning in my small-scale experiment with Small Data is that when I know my progress in a goal that is important to me (my activity level /health), it allows me to make decisions in the moment that reinforce what I want the large scale result to be. That learning has broader implications for each of us and society at large.

It will be interesting to see where the world of Small Data takes us. What I have learned is that if we can align the real-time feedback into driving actions that help us achieve our goals, we may have unlocked a powerful tool in improving health and well-being.

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