I’m A Data Scientist. You’re A Data Scientist. Everyone Is A Data Scientist.

Except, we don’t really use any of the data we collect.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Analytics and big data, two very popular catch phrases you’ll hear in any modern office. Data is collected through various IoT, hardware or software means, and scrutinized to improve business processes, efficiency or create new strategies.

Big data has also become a huge component in our personal lives, but I think the phenomenon is getting out of control. We’ve become way too engrossed with tracking everything; feeling good about numbers regardless of whether they are actually meaningful. Rarely do we even interpret the data, let alone use it to make improvements in our lives.

Take fitness trackers and smartwatches. 10,000 steps a day have become somewhat of a baseline for everyday fitness most people strive for, and I do think that it is a good step forward. Any form of activity is better than nothing, right? However, 10,000 steps is quite a meaningless number without taking into account how these steps were achieved in the first place, the quality of the steps in regards to actual exercise, every individual’s level of fitness, and the inaccuracies of off the-shelf fitness trackers. Most of the time, you’d be clocking steps just by swinging your arms around.

At the end of the day, what exactly do you derive out of that step count other than you’ve reached it (or not)?

Sleep tracking has also become a standard feature. Now, I’ve woken up in the morning with my smartwatch informing me that I’ve only had four hours of deep sleep. So, what can I do about this information? How can I make myself sleep better?

Then there are heart rate sensors. In May 2018, there was a report of a Hongkonger being saved by his smartwatch after an elevated heart rate alarm went off. He was a 76year old man, and at the time of the notification, he felt perfectly fine. Yet, he immediately went to the hospital. Now this was an example of someone who had a good understanding of his own health conditions, and the abnormality prompted him to seek medical attention.

Give yourself a little test, without searching online, right at this moment, do you know what is considered an average heart rate, an elevated but still healthy heart rate, and dangerously elevated heart rate for someone of your age, weight and health? For most of us, these sensors and tracking data fall into the realm of gimmick; a self-congratulatory Instagram post of our “swole” workouts. Rarely do we ever take notice or analyze the data beyond that.

And yet, we still want to track everything. For instance, instead of a generic workout over an hour, fitness apps now boast of being able to track dozens of individual exercises. How often do you forget that you just did 10 pushups that you need to track this over an app? Even if you tracked your pushup progression for a month, and you can now do 100 pushups, you cannot apply this data for anything, other than the fact that you can now do 100 pushups.

In January 2019, Australian researchers developed an electronic pill that can be swallowed to monitor the development of gasses in our gut. Their purpose was for “understanding functional aspects of the intestine and its microbiota in health and in response to dietary changes”. ArsTechnica’s headline for this news was, “With ingestible pill, you can track fart development in real time on your phone”. I’ll admit it. I clicked.

Similarly in January, there was an interesting local news report around the effectiveness of cooling sports products such as moisture-wicking fabrics or slushied isotonic drinks in Singapore’s hot and humid weather. With the help from a local university and another ingestible electronic sensor pill that could accurately track temperatures within the human body, the report practically debunked all benefits of these sports products. And yet, I’m sure that’s not going to stop the athleisure trend.

What I’m getting at is that as everyday consumers like you and I get access to ever more advanced technologies and sensors, we’re generating a lot of data just by living our daily lives. But data is only useful if it can be analyzed for some form for self-improvement. Otherwise, you’re really only feeding the Apples and Googles out there with more information about yourself and your habits that you’d care to admit.

My Reading Room

We’ve become way too engrossed with tracking everything; feeling good about numbers regardless of whether they are actually meaningful.