'Numbers and Narratives' Build a Bridge, Fill in the Blanks
As consumers, employees, students, and Fitbit-wearing human beings, we are being provided with more and more information every day about ourselves and how we benchmark against others—seemingly to no avail. We all know why: Data alone is never enough. But I have been obsessing about how data, in combination with an individual’s own interpretation of, or story about, that data, has the potential to unlock significant personal growth and societal change.
Let’s take the state of education in the United States, which continues to decline despite measurement of every kind. These days, there is particular panic about kids needing to develop the hard skills that will be needed to prepare them for the jobs and technology of the future, as well as the soft skills, like problem solving and leadership, that often depend on self-awareness and confidence.
A friend of mine who is a local elementary school principal sees a solution to these challenges in not only sharing students’ data with them, but in asking them to explain it, also. Knowing that students often learn best when they can relate a topic to their own experiences (known as constructivist learning theory), what kind of self-actualization could come from learning about themselves by relating their own data to their experiences? Rather than sharing discrete data points with students—test scores, attendance and awards numbers, detention and extra-curricular engagement statistics—what if we present these data back to students in a visual, time-series format and asked them to describe their journeys? How would they tell their story, and what could we learn that the data simply can’t say? What was happening at home, for example, or with friends, with teachers, with their health? Imagine if we could aggregate that unstructured data into actionable, system-wide insights—with benchmarks!
Consider the case of one boy (we'll call him Danny) at my friend's school, whose data was showing fantastic performance in his words-per-minute reading score. It wasn't until reviewing Danny's results with him that she learned he was developing a speech impediment–which was bad for Danny and producing a misleading measurement. In a powerful testament to asking kids about their view of benchmarks, as well, Danny was shown different types of stuttering and immediately identified his own. He covers his stuttering by avoiding the "Sh" sound, which he can say correctly, but it makes him anxious. He was able to articulate all of this which, the principal noted, was "pretty amazing." She added: "He is now enrolled in speech and his reading is much better."
So, we all know that data can’t tell us everything we need, but we don’t all appreciate how it can be used to trigger memories or sharing that can, in collaboration with the person whom the data represents, fill in a much more complete story.
This idea of “numbers and narratives” holds equivalent power in the healthcare arena. What happens when we show patients a visualization of all their touchpoints with doctors, pharmacists, and facilities over the past ten years? What will they remember? How will they fill in the blanks? And how can these insights start to solve some of the biggest challenges facing healthcare today?