Making Sense

August 3, 2015

We are visual creatures. To help us emphasize this we often use phrases like, “a picture is worth a thousand words” or “seeing is believing.” When we “look” inside ourselves using a functional MRI (fMRI), we can see just how neurologically intensive our visual acuity brain regions are. Even for most of those who are visually impaired, their other senses – hearing, touch and smell – fill the visual void with dynamic spatial maps of what surrounds them. With these neurologic landscapes, we codify our status and activate the memory heuristics from which we elect our next actions.

On December 7, 1972, the Apollo 17 space crew captured one of the most powerful pictures ever taken. With the sun behind them, the so-called “blue marble” photograph of Earth highlighted its beautiful fragility and seized the imagination of the world. For the first time, we saw “ourselves” from a distance and began to appreciate the vastness of space in which we travel. But it was static; a simple snapshot of a much more complicated and dynamic object from afar.

As of mid-2015 the space start-up, Planet Labs, has deployed more than 130 of their compact “Dove” satellites into ultra-low orbit – just 260 miles up (the International Space Station [ISS] orbits at a similar distance). Arrayed together in a linear and banded position, the Dove network captures high resolution images of the entire world that are integrated into 24-hour image series capturing the precise details of how our world, at every location, changes daily. The productivity of crops, the status of water supplies, evidence of deforestation, fires and other environmental and urban growth (or disasters) are all reflected, providing the visual record to let us see exactly how our collective actions are morphing the one object on which we depend the most: our personal spaceship, planet Earth. But, seeing is a start, it is never sufficient. Action requires not only information, but interpretation and reward; a belief that we, personally, will benefit by applying our knowledge in a certain way. (In other words, we need to be convinced that it would be smart to do something!)

In the 1990s, when Eric Topol was responsible for cardiology at Cleveland Clinic, he was looking for ways to track down costs in the catheterization laboratory. Unblocking clogged arteries with stents can be accomplished with a dizzying array of medical devices – different tips and types of wires as well as and many models of the stents themselves – each with remarkably diverse price points. Topol’s idea was that providing real-time cost data to the doctors before they started a procedure (similar to how consumers receive information in a retail checkout line) would help physicians see the accruing costs, and then make the most prudent purchasing decision on behalf of their patients.

The idea backlashed, with many of the cardiologists truly incensed, suggesting that price consideration was an entirely unethical parameter in their quest to provide the “best medicine for their patients.” Yet, in this example and elsewhere, the data clearly show that highly effective outcomes can be consistently achieved even when managing cost as a companion goal. This tale is a classic example of how we, as people, often prefer not to know information will potentially interfere with our preferred choices.

As our lives (and the lives of our customers, patients, employees and loved ones) fill with more and more data that begs for our attention “to do something,” experiences like the one at Cleveland Clinic are telling reminders to all those who design and provide these types of datasets. To know is insufficient and in some cases, actually counter-productive. If we are to be effective in inspiring action then what we must achieve is true recipient engagement – making a connection at the personal level, and providing a clear path and motivations.

Self-knowledge will become more and more important as an array of technologies in the consumer and retail setting offer new opportunities to track our own health and wellness status, measure treatment outcomes, and influence our behaviors in remarkably diverse ways.

By using Dove satellites, we can now dynamically capture our world’s water supplies or watch our polar ice caps melt away, but in ways similar to real-time evidence of developing obesity or entering cognitive decline, capturing the evidence, and putting it front and center mobilizes only a tiny few. We have to make the information personally engaging in order to move the masses. While seeing may lead many to believing, believing too seldom translates into accepting or acting.

“The blindest man is the one that does not want to see.”