The Creative Potential of Data

When you think of the word “data,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Maybe statistics, graphs, or evidence? How about creativity? Probably not. In fact, many people think of creativity and data as polar opposites. However, what if that wasn’t necessarily the case? Just think about it: analyzing data requires imagination, finding hidden patterns, and translating information into relatable and digestible stories. Today’s Speaker Spotlight focuses on three TEDMED 2018 Speakers who are approaching data creatively and translating their findings to yield new insights in their areas of expertise. Whether it’s hacking the human genome, revealing how data informs behavior, or creating art from MRIs, these Speakers are telling fascinating stories through data in unique and exciting ways.

Data privacy is a hot topic today, but discussions of the issue are rarely focused on the importance of protecting our genetic data. However, genealogy expert Yaniv Erlich and his team made a shocking discovery when they found a privacy loophole that enabled the re-identification of allegedly anonymous male research participants using just internet searches and their Y chromosome. Dubbed the “Genome Hacker” by Nature, Yaniv’s work has pushed the science community to think about genealogy privacy from different angles and to find new ways to utilize our genetic data to inspire positive scientific progress. Yaniv is also responsible for assembling the world’s largest crowdsourced family tree, which includes information from 13 million people, as well as developing the website DNA.land, which has gathered the genotypes of over 100,000 individual donors. With this complex layering of data, Yaniv is paving a path toward establishing a digitized genetic connection between every human alive.

Yaniv Erlich- Whitehead Institute from PMWC Intl on Vimeo.

In today’s digital world, health data isn’t being used exclusively by doctors and scientists. There are apps, devices, and home tests that enable the anyone to collect, monitor, and track their personal health data. David Asch, a behavioral economist at the University of Pennsylvania, warns that we should not look to these “quantified self” datasets as primary drivers of health behavior change, but instead we should view them as promising facilitators. In a 2015 JAMA piece, Asch and his co-authors noted that while wearable health tracking devices “are increasing in popularity, little evidence suggests that they are bridging that gap” between simply “recording and reporting information about behaviors such as physical activity or sleep patterns” and actually “educat[ing] and motivat[ing] individuals toward better habits and better health.” By diving deeper into the realities of quantified self data outcomes, David is working to move past the hype and to communicate what is most effective in inspiring positive health changes.

Of course, gaining insight into our health often requires more intensive measures than self-tracking, and many people undergo diagnostic tests such as CT scans or MRIs to see what’s going on inside of their body. While many people find getting one of these tests to be an unsettling experience, artist Marilène Oliver finds beauty and opportunity in diagnostic scans. Inspired by Hans Moravec’s idea that the Digital Age could one day enable us to download our consciousness, Marilène took the concept one step further and asked, “what about our bodies?” Finding that this question couldn’t be answered solely in virtual sculptures or fully physical structures, Marilène now creates work that strives to bring digitized bodies to life. Marilène’s art not only spotlights new and explosive ways to interpret our medical data, but it also helps us to more deeply explore questions surrounding our health, wellbeing, and physical body.

Marilene Oliver. Portfolio of Selected Work 2003-2013 from Marilene Oliver on Vimeo.

Data collection and interpretation has become a dynamic and creative process. With the power of a search engine, a smartwatch, or a PET scan, we are now able to glean insights into health and medicine that were previously unimaginable. For Yaniv, David, and Marilène, data has been the fuel that helped them to establish important new connections and to reconsider how they think about health. By unleashing the creativity and possibility inherent in data, these three speakers are inspiring us to look at information in new ways and to answer the question: how will you think about data?