blog header image

Seek the Story and Find the Answers in the Numbers!

Tom Sullivan

April 19, 2016
Tom Sullivan

I love numbers and find joy in silly games like finding how many patterns and connections I can identify in the birth dates of family members. As a kid, I followed baseball stats and tried to predict which team would win based on the pitching match-ups. Numbers help us make sense of the world.  They also give us a sense of security and predictability.  And sometimes they create anxiety.  Did you notice that yesterday the Dow crossed the 18,000 mark again?  My guess is that half of people with 401ks are happy and will actually check their balances to see how they are doing and fantasize about the next uptrend.  The other half is probably waiting for the Dow to fall back knowing that we’ve been here before only to be disappointed.

I believe that in general, we need to pay more careful attention to numbers and not just the ones on the sports page.  Numbers reveal a story.  They help us understand where we are and can also help us foresee where we are headed in the future.  But we also need numbers to inspire us to seek solutions to all sorts of things we want to improve: our personal finances, our business performance and the capacity of society to improve its conditions for people.

Activity Works is a company we founded in 2009 to provide elementary school students in grades K to 4 with video episodes that inspire them to learn while moving through in-classroom brain breaks. The analytics enable us to know which classrooms and schools are exercising the most and which ones are not using them enough.  We then follow-up to learn what the keys to success are in the high users versus the low users.  The insights we have gained regarding the underlying factors, such as the availability and quality of bandwidth in the schools or the support of the principals, enable us to address obstacles and improve performance. One thing we learned to increase usage was to publish the numbers themselves to inspire friendly competitions.  We now have hundreds of classrooms tracking their steps, miles and calories burned so kids are getting healthier while learning and having fun.

Today, there is a lot of energy around the idea that using big data can help society solve a lot of big problems. The costs and quality outcomes of our healthcare system is one of the biggest.  US expenditures on healthcare have grown from 12% to 18% of GDP since 1990, double the growth rate of other developed nations. Today, we spend about $10,000 per person on healthcare per year.  Can we use data to help us innovate new solutions?  I know we can and am excited about all the great minds working on improving our healthcare system.  But ultimately, it will be a story of success or failure on the individual human level.  Can we incentivize the right behaviors?  Can we lower utilization of expensive emergency and critical care services through prevention and wellness and by integrating behavioral healthcare into the mix?  Can we inspire people to understand their own numbers like BMI, blood pressure and cholesterol counts?  After all, aren’t our health status numbers at least as important as the ones in our 401K statements?