Data is Power


Sylvia Bryan, Editor-in-chief

Knowledge is power.

That little adage has been driven into our minds from a young age, and it makes sense; how can you accomplish something if you don’t know what you’re trying to do, or how to make it happen? But as technology marches on, so does our access to knowledge.

Big Data is now a phrase people use with complete seriousness and sincerity, and has become a villain to the same types of people who were anxious about Big Pharma or Big Agriculture five years ago.

Personally, I have always been drawn to data-based projects and ideas. While personal testimonies are useful in their own way, and much more emotionally appealing, it’s all too easy to forget that the plural of anecdote is not anecdata. And while statistics can be manipulated to support a certain viewpoint or conclusion, the numbers in their raw form do not lie. People lie. Data, at least in theory, does not.

Of course, sometimes data misses the mark. The 2016 election is a perfect example, and will likely be the textbook case for statisticians screwing up. But there’s a reason that was so shocking. The same people who miscalculated 2016 nailed it in 2012, 2008 and 2004. Usually, the data gets it right. Just not this time.

And that’s just data on a macro-scale. It gets much more precise and more accurate on the micro-scale, particularly when you narrow it down to the individual person.

Using nothing more than my phone, I can track my food intake, exercise, and various other things, from health to shopping to internet usage. And I can get as stupidly specific as my heart desires: I can track my average daily Vitamin C intake, or how many grams of protein I ate in a week, or predict what I would weigh in a month if I ate a certain number of calories each day. Or I can track the average elevation of my runs, or pace, or even how many miles my shoes have traveled. The options are so endless that at first they may feel overwhelming.

But shouldn’t we be using these tools to our advantage? Would two-thirds of American adults be overweight or obese if everybody was counting calories with programs like MyFitnessPal? Would accidental pregnancies decrease if everyone was using apps like Clue to track their cycles? Would we be a little less tired if we tracked our sleep (and how much more of it we could use?)

We have access to knowledge like never before, and frankly I think we are under-utilizing it. Sure, sometimes statistics get it wrong. But more often than not, dta can open your eyes in the simplest of ways, even if you’re not a FiveThirtyEight addict like I am.