How Technology Has Changed The Way We Access Health

Share Button

Originally posted on Huffington Post

When I grew up, the primary sources of health information for most of us were our physicians or our friends and family. But over the past decade the resources we use and rely on for health information, and how we use it, have radically changed. With the ubiquitous availability of the Internet, we’re now taking on the role of gathering and assessing this information ourselves, often before we visit or return to our doctors. To find health information, most of us turn to search engines or health sites — whether to answer questions about a new physical discomfort, a known ailment or about a health matter facing a child or other person we care.

The way we find health information has problems

But when we look for health information online, we face significant challenges. The amount of health information we find is vast, and what we find is impersonal and often irrelevant. Also, in most cases, it’s provided by sources whose trustworthiness cannot be easily validated.

When we search for answers to health questions, we receive vast amounts of information — page after page of search results, countless posts on unstructured forums, opinions of people who for the most part are not trained medical professionals or lengthy articles that go on and on about every possible complication and treatment related to a health topic. What we find often leaves us more confused than when we started, uncertain as to what’s relevant and what to trust.

On the rare occasion that we find something that may be useful, we face another problem.

Today, health information online is organized around topics (like symptoms, conditions, and treatments) but not around what’s most important: you. This means that entirely different people (for example: you, me, an average 25-year-old pregnant woman, a 65-year-old man with a chronic disease, an 8-year-old child with asthma and a healthy 42-year-old man) get the same results when they enter the same search, or look on the same health website. This makes little sense: If these very different individuals went to the same doctor, they’d get different answers to the same question. Imagine visiting your doctor and receiving health information before being asked any basic questions about yourself (your age, gender, health history, etc.). We’d never accept this kind of non-contextual information from our physicians, yet we need to make important health decisions every day based on what we find online — even when what we find is not necessarily relevant for us.

The existing solutions for finding health information online are of little or no use to most of us. Research confirms this fact: Nearly 60 percent of adults report that the health information they find online is of no help at all, according to a 2010 Pew Internet Study.

Moreover, with all the great things that the Internet has brought for helping disseminate health information, there’s one thing that I believe is highly problematic: Physicians, who used to be in the epicenter of the health conversation when I grew up, have become marginalized on most health sites, and the emphasis is put on encyclopedias, articles, blog posts and message boards where health information is shared among and by people with no formal health education or expertise. This reality of online health has caused a dangerous and justified erosion of trust.

How online health information is changing

Thankfully, the way we look for and find health information online, how useful it is to us and what we do with it are all about to change. The wealth of information to which we have access is finally being made useful, relevant and — most important — engaging, through new innovations and technologies.

We are in the midst of historic evolution. Today — right now — the consumer health industry is being radically redefined. We’ve reached a tipping point where the right mix of technology, innovation, motivation and need are converging to create an opportunity for real, radical and positive change for anyone who looks for health information online. This convergence is opening the door to a promising and exciting era in health, which I’ve coined as: “Interactive Health.”

Interactive Health: Five factors that will forever change our relationship to health information

“Interactive Health” enables new ways of understanding and relating to our health by bringing together five primary elements to drive change: new apps and devices (including portable connected devices, like smart phones and tablets, and data collection devices); personalization (based on user-provided data); engagement (created by game dynamics and new user interfaces); the increased presence, leadership and participation of doctors online; and a vibrant social dialogue about health.

New Devices and Apps
Hundreds of thousands of smart phones and tablets are activated every day. The numbers are astonishing: More than 600,000 new devices running the Google Android operating system (mostly smart phones) and Apple iOS (including the iPhone and iPad) are activated every day. More than 30 million apps are downloaded each day. These go-anywhere devices and apps are like “computers on the go,” providing instant access to information and services in new ways.

The ubiquity of cloud computing and new faster and cheaper ways to collect, store and process large amounts of data is enabling mass personalization for the first time. Data is being processed in exciting new ways to create personalization for users — financial information, entertainment, and general purchases (from books to consumer goods) are being personalized with services like,, and Netflix. We’re just beginning to see the potential of personalization in other areas of our daily lives.

Game Dynamics and Engagement
The gaming industry is now bigger than the film industry, and continues to grow. People of all ages are now engaging with games, and gaming elements, every day. As a result, interactive and game dynamics are now appearing in mobile and online applications and creating new types of engagement with information.

Doctors Coming Online
For years, physicians have been marginalized and visibly missing from the online conversation about health. They are now increasingly embracing social media and adopting new technologies and new ways of connecting with patients and patients and other physicians online. Physicians are engaging in new IT-based means of delivering care and sharing information, as well as new methods for sharing their expertise online.

The Social Conversion about Health
The online conversation about health, in social networks and beyond, is becoming increasingly vibrant. We’re finally facing up to the unsustainable path of our existing system of care, and starting to use the online conversation to connect with experts and other individuals similar to us when it comes to health. This trend helps people remain more engaged with their health and explore new ways of improving their health and well being.

Why now is the right time

Today, health care costs in the U.S. have ballooned to almost $3 trillion per year. This enormous burden, which is threatening the viability of our entire economy, can be traced in large part to inefficiencies in the healthcare system and to a lack of engagement by consumers in their health, whether they are well or chronically ill.

But there’s hope: Some of the best entrepreneurs, investors, engineers and physicians are finally looking for creative ways to engage people in their health and well being. They are bringing to health and health care the kind of personalization, socialization and engagement we’ve been used to receiving at Amazon, Facebook and Zynga to drive much-overdue change.

What’s special about Interactive Health

Interactive Health is all about becoming healthier and happier through your everyday engagement with your health and well-being. It’s about making health more than just the topic of periodic doctor visits or New Year’s resolutions, and making it a part of your everyday life. When heath information becomes personal and based on real validated data and grounded in trustworthy expert knowledge, we are more likely to become engaged with it and make better long lasting informed decision, as well as have a long-lasting impact on our health and well-being.

The first way to increase health engagement is by personalizing it through data and information that’s contextualized and actually about you. Today, new products are coming to market — from electronic wireless scales (that collect weight and BMI information), to interactive watches that gather biometric measurements, to always-on pedometers that monitor our physical activity. All of these can help us collect and make use of personal data in new, individualized ways. Moreover, in the near future, even more sensors will be integrated into smart phones and other devices we use every day. Information that previously was rarely collected, and then only during doctors’ visits (and even then we didn’t have access to it), is now being made personal. In addition, with increased EMR adoption in hospitals and physician practices, we’ll have better access to our own health information. Together, these trends, devices and apps will help us automatically collect, access, and monitor our personal health information in new ways.

The second way to increase our personal engagement with our health is to have a “personal health companion,” a new, easy-to-use tool for making personalized health information and data easy to manage, analyze and understand in real-time. A personal health companion built on what we choose to share can help us make better choices about our health and well-being, and provide us access — via an intuitive interface — to trusted medical information and support networks that will create and sustain the motivation needed for lasting health engagement.

This is not vision of a distant future. The foundation for Interactive Health exists today — in 2011 — and its time is now. We have the technology, social trends, motivation and talent to bring these elements together and make Interactive Health a reality.

What Interactive Health means for you

Interactive Health is a powerful vision that is quickly becoming a reality. In the world of Interactive Health, a doctor’s visit can start on a mobile device, progress to a real clinic and continue with instant access online. You can receive secure, tailored health information from a personal health companion that helps you make informed decisions before and in-between doctors visits. The new era of Interactive Health is an exciting world of possibility, and one where:

  • Mobile and online applications for improving health are fast, simple and accessible, anytime and anywhere.
  • Information is personalized and tools help you receive secure, tailored, relevant and actionable health information.
  • There is 24/7, easy access to trusted physicians and their wisdom, online and offline.
  • Interactive technologies connect you with relevant, experienced support groups to help you make informed decisions.
  • Simple tools with game-like interactions make it fun to become and remain engaged in your health.

Interactive Health is not about “fixing” the broken health-care system or the problems of finding health information online. It’s about engaging each of us (well or ill) in our health, well-being and in the process of care. Moreover, it’s about empowering and inspiring physicians and health-care professionals to actively lead, participate and help us achieve better and more cost-effective care. Interactive Health is about making personalized health knowledge, supportive care and motivation available to you, anytime and anywhere, so that you can integrate this knowledge into your daily actions to live a longer, healthier, happier life.

Welcome to the new era of Interactive Health.

Follow Ron Gutman on Twitter:

Welcome to the New Era of Interactive Health

Share Button

Guest Post Written by our CEO & Founder, Ron Gutman on

A few weeks ago at the TED conference in Long Beach, after giving a talk on the “Untapped Power of the Smile,” which later turned into a guest blog post on, a bunch of TEDsters approached me to ask what I’m doing outside of researching smiles. I told them a little about my health-related angel investing and advising (with companies like Massive Health and Doximity), helping launch Rock Health (the first-ever Interactive Health incubator), and about my new company HealthTap.

Each of these conversations sparked a vibrant discussion of how the consumer health industry is being redefined in a very powerful way. Timing is everything, and we all agreed that we’ve finally reached a tipping point where the right mix of technology, innovation and motivation are creating an opportunity for real, positive disruptions.

The Right Mix of Converging Trends

In the past few months a unique opportunity in health has emerged, uniting new apps and devices, vast amounts of data, a vibrant online social dialogue and new engagement mechanisms.

Hundreds of thousands of smart phones and tablets are being activated everyday, fostering the development of new apps and opportunities for engineers, designers, entrepreneurs and investors. Inexpensive access to the cloud is facilitating fast and easy ways to collect, store and process data for insights and personalization. The online health conversation, in social networks and beyond, is becoming increasingly lively and commonplace. The wide adoption of interactive games alongside the deployment of game dynamics in a variety of mobile and online applications are resulting in levels of engagement we’ve not seen before. This convergence is creating fertile ground for a new, promising, and exciting era in health – an era that, when describing it to my fellow TEDsters, I coined as “Interactive Health.”

A New Field is Born: “Interactive Health”

Interactive Health is all about you, the consumer, and about your everyday engagement in your health and well-being.

Before the recent emergence of Interactive Health, most of the new, ambitious companies and investors in health innovation were centered around biotech, medical devices or large health IT projects (and detached from everything consumer internet/mobile). Now, as many of the most innovative of these companies face slow development, significant financial hurdles and regulatory challenges, investors are looking elsewhere for opportunities where companies can make a real impact – and quickly.

At the same time, developments in Web technology, mobile devices, and social networking/gaming have impacted our lives in unimaginable ways, and have created some of the world’s fastest growing and most successful companies.  Despite their success, entrepreneurs and investors in interactive industries have shied away from health care, even though most users believe that the existing online solutions are of no use (more than half of Internet users report that the health information they find online is of no help at all, according to a 2010 Pew Internet Study).

A Significant Need

The opportunity and the need for innovation in health are immense. The percentage of our national budget consumed by health related costs has ballooned to almost $3 trillion per year, creating an enormous burden stemming from inefficiencies in the process of care, misaligned incentives, and a lack of engagement by both individuals (whether well or chronically ill) and caretakers.

But there’s hope: Some of the most intuitive entrepreneurs, investors, engineers, and physicians are finally “sensing” the huge opportunity in health. They’re looking for creative ways to merge personalization technologies with gaming, social networking tools, and consumer facing mobile/online applications to engage people in their health and well being, and drive much-overdue change.

A Compelling Opportunity

The message is compelling: Think about the online companies that have achieved personalization, socialization, and engagement –, Facebook, Zynga, and Netflix – and start dreaming big, this time in health.

Highly innovative, always connected devices and apps are coming together to help us automatically collect, and track our personal health information. Fast EMR adoption in hospitals and physician practices (fueled by US Government Stimulus Package Incentives) is opening up new possibilities for data collection and integration. And fast growing, grass-roots movements like the Quantified Self and Living by Numbers demonstrate the potential impact of analyzing personal data and integrating the knowledge and motivation that it provides into our lives.

Next, a new breed of personal health utilities (the missing platforms in this emerging ecosystem) will make our personal health data easy to collect, manage, analyze and understand in real-time, while helping us make better choices about our health and well-being. To realize their full potential, these health utilities will have to provide intuitive interfaces and access to trusted support networks that will create and sustain the knowledge and motivation needed to create and sustain lasting health engagement.

The Right Time

This is not vision of a distant future. The foundation for Interactive Health exists today – in 2011 – and its time is now. We have the technology, social trends, talent, motivation and – most importantly – the experience and execution skills needed to bring these elements together and make Interactive Health a reality.

Over the past months, the rightness of the timing has been repeatedly reinforced at multiple “over capacity” and “sold out” Interactive Health meetups I’ve been involved with. Hundreds of interested, talented “doers” and “thinkers” gathered, to transform health in new ways at the first-ever health hackathon that took place earlier this winter, at this year’s first-ever Interactive Health event at South by Southwest last month, and at the first Interactive Health physicians’ event we hosted in Palo Alto two weeks ago. These gatherings demonstrate that grassroots-level change in healthcare is underway, and it’s time for the creative innovators who really care to lead the way.

Forward-thinking physicians aspire to contribute to the quality of online health information and provide better care using new Web and mobile applications; talented engineers are eager to tackle the immense challenges facing healthcare; product teams can’t wait to apply their exceptional skills from web/mobile/gaming to big problems in health; and, most importantly, consumers are awaiting real transformations in this industry that will help them lead healthier, happier lives.

How Interactive Health is Emerging

The recipe is not complex – but it requires collaboration, talent, expertise and the ability to execute. Web 3.0 companies and the U.S. Government’s Open Data Initiative are already focused on data analytics and personalization. As LinkedIn co-founder and Greylock Partner’s Reid Hoffman notes: data will be the platform of the next era of the Web, and “is where some massive innovation will happen that will transform our lives.”

Imagine the new Era of Interactive Health after we’ve inspired and empowered 100,000 talented engineers, product people, designers, doctors and investors to work together and create sustainable applications and technologies that people will actually use because they add real value to their lives. Envision a world where:

  • Mobile and online applications for improving health are fast, simple and accessible anytime and anywhere.
  • Personalization reigns, and personalized tools help you receive secure, tailored, relevant and actionable health information that’s all about you.
  • 24/7 easy access to trusted physicians and their wisdom, online and offline, facilitate a continuum of care in a seamless, effective and secure way.
  • Interactive technologies provide access to and facilitate communication with relevant, experienced individuals and support groups to help you make informed decisions.
  • Simple tools with game-like interactions make it fun to become and remain engaged in your health.

Interactive Health is not about “fixing” the broken healthcare system; it’s about engaging each of us, well or ill, in our health, well-being, and the process of care. Moreover, it’s about empowering physicians and healthcare professionals to actively participate and help us achieve better and more cost-effective care. Interactive health is about making health knowledge, supportive care, and motivation available to us, anytime and anywhere, so that we can integrate this wisdom into our daily actions to live longer, healthier, happier lives.

Welcome to the new era of Interactive Health.

Visit Ron’s Guest Post at

Ron Gutman is founder and CEO of the online HealthTap, your Home for Health, which launched April, 2011. Prior to HealthTap, he co-founded Wellsphere (acquired in early 2009). Ron is also an angel investor and advisor to early stage technology companies, an advisor to Harvard Medical School’s SMArt Initiative (“Substitutable Medical Apps, reusable technologies”), a host of health “hackathons,” and serves as the Curator of TEDxSilicon Valley. Follow him on Twitter at, or check out HealthTap’s beta community at

Quantifying the Smile at Quantified Self

Share Button

There’s just over 1 week to go until the first ever Quantified Self conference, where I’ve been invited to speak on Quantifying the Smile. Quantified Self is all about bringing people together- users and tool makers- who are interested in self-tracking and the potential impact it can have on ourselves as individuals and as a society.

Just a few months ago, I gave a TED talk on the Untapped Powers of the Smile. From the research I performed to prepare for the talk, and the incredibly viral positive response I observed afterwards, I realized—the impact of a smile is something worth quantifying. Every smile has amazing hidden emotional, physiological and personal benefits that will have a long term impact on our well being. A smile is also universal and contagious—it touches everyone who sees it from individuals, to groups, to communities that can help make our world a happier and tangibly healthier place.

I can’t wait to share some of the research that I’ve found and spread the power of the smile in the Quantified Self community, and beyond.

TEDx Sillicon Valley- Wrapping Up

Share Button

On Saturday, May 14th, over 700 leading thinkers and doers gathered at Stanford University to discuss social innovation and the emerging concept of Living by Numbers at TEDx Silicon Valley 2011.  This independently organized TED event, which was planned from a small office in Silicon Valley and was produced by a dedicated handful of event organizers and volunteers, far outgrew the boundaries of it’s locale. Over 350,000 people joined TEDx Silicon Valley via livestream from over 50 countries around the world, and the event became a national trending topic on Twitter.  From the quality of speakers to the vibrant discussions in the community during the breaks, TEDx Silicon Valley was one of the most thought-provoking, inspiring and impactful conferences I’ve experienced. It was a huge success, and I’d like to thank everyone who helped me make it happen.

Seeing the event come together really spoke to the collaborative spirit and heart of Silicon Valley. Without the passionate, dedicated people that surrounded us—speakers, artists, event organizers, volunteers, technical staff, Stanford administrators, and sponsors – TEDx Silicon Valley could not have come to life as it did.

Like many of you, I continue to reflect on the talks of that day on the theme of “Living By Numbers.” It’s a topic that’s picking up significant momentum in Silicon Valley, as ways to collect, track and store data is becoming available in new ways on an individual level. Storing and analyzing data is becoming easy and cheap. Data visualization is making information easy to understand, quick to interpret and completely accessible to all types of people in a way that can help us make more informed decisions. But what does that really mean for me or you on a daily basis? What does “Living By Numbers” mean for us as a collective?

Our amazing speakers and artists, from beginning to end, helped us explore this concept:

Chris Anderson showed us how feedback loops can help us better understand the consequences of our choices and empower us to make better decisions everyday, suggesting that awareness itself can lead to behavior change.

Chris Hogg emphasized the importance of using health apps to collect data from the patient, whom he considers “the most underutilized resource in healthcare,” helping the physician improve decision-making and the patient gain self-knowledge.

Patrick Meier demonstrated how mapping networks, connections and numbers in real-time can help us make the best decisions about where and how to distribute resources in times of crisis. Starting with his non-profit organization, Ushahidi, “crisis mapping” has spread as a solution for changing the world in Haiti, Libya, Egypt and beyond.

An interactive presentation by Tweet Dreams engaged the audience in creating music from tweets by mapping the relationships of tweets to each other, and translating data into sound.

Bernardo Huberman spoke about attention as a limiting factor of information, illustrating that Living by Numbers has enabled us to discover universal characteristics of social attention.

My TED talk on the Untapped Power of Smiling, was also shown, and it helped emphasize the social, emotional and personal benefits of finding time to smile everyday.

Kriss Deiglmeier brought our discussion of numbers back to Social Innovation, a topic that’s central to both Silicon Valley and TED, urging us to think about how we can scale social innovation and think strategically for the future.

Damon Horowitz spoke to the responsibility of “Living By Numbers” from a philosophical perspective, challenging us to think about how we advance technologies under this way of life.

Mitch Kapor highlighted bleak statistics, which described the imbalance of opportunity in education from socioeconomic factors, and described a solution that’s helping STEMI students across the country defy expectation.

Lara Stein told the story of TEDx and the tribe that now is helping TED spread more than just ideas, but it’s mission—values of openness, conversation, discovery and innovation to diverse places around the globe.

Jonathan Attwood showed us the power of Zamzee in helping improve the daily activity, health and well-being of overweight and obese children across the U.S—not because they have to, because they want to.

Joe Lonsdale provided basic guiding principles for what it means “to be good” as a business, ensure long-term success, and achieve enormous value creation.

Jennifer Pahlka spoke about her mission to make the “Have Nots” of data more available to the word through “Code for America,” which helps make government more relevant and valuable to our lives by transforming their data and giving it the same utility of private sector data.

Sinan Aral showed us the numbers behind how contagions spread as a means of measuring influence and helping inform strategy for spreading products, services, ideas and messages that can change the world.

George LeGrady presented two data visualization projects of his “Pockets Full of Memories” and “Making Visible the Invisible” describing the relationships between objects, their owners associations and their utilitarian functions.

Daniel Kraft spoke to how emerging technologies in health—from digitization of health information to increasing data capture are helping physicians make more informed decisions and helping us transform insights into behavior change.

Tim O’Rielly showed us how numbers, via predictive analytics in information applications, can replicate human learning and devise algorithms that replicate human behavior, vice and virtue, helping us understand the relationship between man and machine.

Yasmin Lukatz describes how connectivity enables data and helps bridge behavior to personalize content and services and make information actionable.

Brian Krejcarek showed us how tracking our everyday activity, with small sensors we can stick on objects (created by his company GreenGoose), can help us achieve our goals in real life, while having fun in an interactive, online experience.

Eric Rodenbeck discussed the many data visualization projects of Stamen Design, and the ability to transform our understanding of data through its presentation.

Jeff Hammerbacher used data to illuminate the importance of providing support for the underserved health issues of mental disease, and showed with numbers that the current drug development costs and innovations are failing to produce the results needed to adequately address these significant health conditions.

Belinda Galiano shared some inspiring numbers behind her Campus Party movement, which gathers together large groups across the world for interactive conversation and interaction. 

Thomas Goetz tied together the talks from the day by discussing data feedback loops, and the potential for the positive impact of collecting and learning from the personal data points that make the most difference in our life.

A special Thank You to our artists who added life, creativity, music, laughter, passion and color to our time at TEDx.

Ruth Kaiser, Artist (spontaneous smiley project)

Robert Strong, Comedy magician

Eoin Harrington, Musician

Anna Kristina, Musician (DNA Sings)

Cristobal Vila, Film “Nature by Numbers”

Michael Capozzola, Cartoonist

Kevin Carroll, Author

Robert X. Fogarty, Photographer (“Dear World” / “Write Our Future”)

Allen Gittelson, Mind reader

Inspire Productions, event production (flags)

Sterling Johnson, bubblesmith

Michael Stroud, Magician

Monika Steiner, Artist (painter and sculptor)

Very much looking forward to TEDx Silicon Valley next year.

Ron Gutman is founder and CEO of the online HealthTap, your Home for Health, which launched April, 2011. Prior to HealthTap, he co-founded Wellsphere (acquired in early 2009). Ron is also an angel investor and advisor to early stage technology companies, an advisor to Harvard Medical School’s SMArt Initiative (“Substitutable Medical Apps, reusable technologies”), a host of health “hackathons,” and serves as the Curator of TEDxSilicon Valley. Follow him on Twitter at, or check out HealthTap’s beta community at

Living By Numbers – TEDxSV Theme

Share Button

Numbers have always been at the center of innovation in Silicon Valley.  Now a new concept (and what some would call a movement), Living by Numbers, is gaining significant momentum here and elsewhere.  New ways of collecting, tracking, and analyzing data – not just as communities but actually as as individuals – are giving way to significant insights, and creating new opportunities.  Numbers transformed into information and then morphed into wisdom and eventually action will become an influential platform for the next era of innovation. As LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman noted earlier this year: big data is the next big thing – it “is where some massive innovation will happen that will transform our lives.”

Living by numbers sounds like a modern concept – something from the post-computer age, or even the future.  The phrase conjures up images of a never-ending string of numbers, and a world where people live more by logic than emotion.  But is this concept really so contemporary or futuristic?  Is it really so cold and cerebral?

As humans, we’ve always been fascinated by numbers, and have long known the benefits of using them to guide our daily lives – from the Ancient World through the Industrial age to today.

We’ve used numbers to bring us water and to cross it – we used mathematically precise calculations and building techniques to build the Roman Aquaduct system in the Ancient world to the first sea clock that allowed us to circumnavigate the globe in the 1770s.  The Roman Aquaducts, powered by gravity, were built to technological standards of amazing precision (to prevent overflows or clotting).  The famous aqueduct bridge the Pont du Guard in France has gradient of only 34 cm per kilometer (3.4:10,000), meaning that it descends only about 56 feet vertically over its entire length of over 31 miles.

In 1764, a self-educated British clockmaker John Harrison invented the first clock that accurately keep time at sea, enabling sailors to establish the longitue of a ship, revolutionizing and extending the possibility of safe long distance sea travel.  Five years later explorer Captain James Cook used this chronometer to circumnavigate the globe, completing the first detailed charts of the world.  Aqueducts brought fresh water for drinking, fountains and public pools, and managed sewers to dramatically expand the size of and transformed the nature and quality of life in cities.  Sailing and charting the world forever changed the nature of navigation, travel, trade and exploration.

We’ve lived by numbers, keeping intimate track of time, to order our world and improve our productivity – from adopting the Gregorian calendar in the Age of Discovery to the development of the modern automated Ford assembly line in the Industrial Age.  In 1582 Pope Gregory the XIII introduced the modern calendar we still use today, replacing one adopted by Julius Ceasar over 1500 years before, and correcting the assumption of the Julian calendar that a year is 365¼ days long, when it’s about 11 minutes less.  The error had caused the calendar to be off by about 3 days every 400 years, requiring a shift of a full 10 days, when the Gregorian Calendar was adopted.  In the Industrial Age machine manufacturing replaced manual labor, and automated production and new theories of efficiency helped re-orgianze commerce and our lives.  The Ford Model-T assembly line increased production by 8:1, reducing the man-hours required to build a car to 1 hour 33 minutes, and producing cars so quickly that only Japan back paint would dry fast enough, driving the company to drop previously available colors until a faster drying liquor paint was developed 12 years later.  Living by numbers in the Age of discovery involved erasing a week and a half from the calendar to put time back on the right track, and in the Industrial Era we tracked time to erase costs and make previously inaccessible goods available to the masses.

Today, data and numbers touch nearly every aspect of our daily lives. From the scientific method, that has been the bedrock of innovation in academia and cutting edge businesses, to ubiquitous smart phones that help us measure almost anything and everything.

Now each of us quite literally lives not only by numbers, but actually with our own number – a unique identifier that is both most effective means of reaching us at any time, and our primary means of connecting with others and with data.  We’re becoming increasingly connected through smart phones and tablets – each day over 600,000 Android and Apple OS devices are activated and over 10 million apps are downloaded every day.

How Living By Numbers has Evolved

Over time we’ve gone from living by numbers tied to calendars to new means of exploration and transportation, to how we organize ourselves as a society and live together, to how we communicate with each other and access information.  And along this pathway, numbers have changed humanity.  They’ve altered not just how we live our lives, but the basis of our beliefs as well.

Take the scientific method: systematic observation, measurements, and experiments, followed by formulating, testing, and modifying hypotheses.  In the late 19th century, Charles Sanders Peirce introduced the basic schema for hypothesis/testing for scientific discovery, and proposed a system of three kinds of inference – abductive, deductive, and inductive – that influence in the development of current scientific method generally.  This method created a pathway for us to understand the world based on what we can measure.  This reveals something very powerful: the transformative potential of numbers.

The Transformative Power of Numbers

The most exciting numbers are the ones that lead us to informed action.  Living by numbers isn’t just about keeping track of them, it’s about using them to positively impact our lives.  When we transform data into information, we enable ourselves to use this information to create knowledge, and in turn to turn this knowledge into action.  When we follow the progression of numbers to their useful conclusion, they can become the basis for actions in our daily lives that are based on wisdom that we know is supported by fact and not merely belief.

What Living by Numbers Means Today

We’re entering into the next stage of the power of numbers and data.  Previously, the use of numbers to guide and govern life occurred in the realm of social and religious leaders, then scientists and academics, and later businesses – but numbers shave never historically been in the domain of the public.

One important way of making numbers accessible and enabling quick decisions based on numbers is data visualization – a powerful means for conveying data in a way that’s easy to understand.  With visualization tools we create the possibility for data to impact our lives in meaningful ways, by giving numbers context, relevance, and immediate accessibility.  Visualization allows for us to put different datasets together quickly, and to instantly extract meaning from data.

This is changing. Today (and moreso in the near future), we can collect and track personal and communal numbers in exciting new ways. It’s easier and cheaper to store this data, and there are ever more, and simpler, ways to analyze and utilize these numbers in our daily lives. Information created by them is also increasingly accessible using data visualization – powerful means for conveying numbers in a way that’s easy to understand, and from which we can quickly make more informed decisions. Living by numbers leads to fascinating daily discoveries about us and our environment, creating enormous potential for positive personal and social change.

Life can and will change with the tools to collect, store, analyze, and understand numbers in ways that have only recently become available to individuals.  As we realize that the exciting potential for what this new day of living by numbers can mean for each of us personally, we should also not forget to question where this leaves us at the end of the day as humans.

We should diligently consider the potential implications of this trend both for our society and our humanity, in the short and long term: Is making decisions based on just numbers always the right choice? Does moving from knowing less to knowing more always leave us better off? Who owns the numbers we generate, individually and collectively, and how should we handle them? How do we retain our humanity, beliefs, and core values in the presence of these new numbers and insights?  And, of course: How can numbers be used to innovate for social change and improve our lives and the lives of others?

The answers to these questions can help guide our social dialogue around living by numbers, and help us understand when and how to integrate numbers into our daily lives so that we can, as humans, maximize the potential for data and numbers to create positive change for each of us.  In this way, living by numbers can form the foundation for creating new kinds of social and personal wisdom, by expanding our knowledge and understanding of our daily life experiences, and helping us direct this wisdom toward our own greater good.