Leading Edge / Spring 2018
Dark Data

The usefulness of “steps per day” and other information our devices help us track

Illustration of a chart with a line graph in the shape of a smiling face and arms, and with a heart in the upper left corner.

Illustration: Sara Wong.

A growing number of gadgets track how far we walk in a day and how many hours we sleep at night. But these numbers don’t tell us anything valuable about our overall health, says Jayson Parker, a biology professor at U of T Mississauga. “For the average person without a medical condition, this knowledge is useless,” he says. The information these devices provide is what medical researchers call “dark data.” It’s gathered but then not useful for decision-making.

Parker notes, however, that insurance companies have grown interested in research showing that less sedentary people have better heart health – in which case “steps per day” may turn out not to be “dark” after all. In his own research, Parker is using biometric information to predict superior health outcomes over a 36-hour period. Success would bring this data “into the light,” too.

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