Dangerous Data: A Health Warning

Information technology provides the means for capturing, storing, processing and retrieving data in information systems.  Advances in information technology have continually challenged information systems to explore new ways in which the data captured can be used.  The move from improving efficiency of data capture and data storage led to process improvements, improving the effectiveness of information systems and questioning the basic requirements for information in different contexts.  Has technology advanced such that individuals now have access to dangerous data?

New technologies enable data to be captured by anyone at affordable costs.  It is enabling people to capture data and have access to data that previously would have been difficult to collect or would have only been available to subject experts.  But is this a good thing?

The ease with which data can be captured offers advantages in many areas, but what happens when data are given to someone who does not have the skill and knowledge to interpret the data appropriately? Are individuals accessing dangerous data?

Health Watch Cartoon

Health Watch

Health Gadgets

For many people smart watches and health gadgets are becoming the latest fashion accessory.  They provide an affordable means for the average person to capture data about their bodily statistics, such as heart rate and blood pressure.  For some people, this provides a useful addition to supplement ongoing medical care overseen by a health care professional.  For many others, it offers an intriguing insight into the way in which their body functions and may be seen as harmless fun.  The ease with which the data can be captured has also prompted a series of apps to be developed to enable individuals to monitor, track and process the data captured.

Many health apps are not fit for purpose, and doctors caution of the dangers of both false negatives and false positive results from health apps (Bara, 2014).  The current apps are unregulated and inaccurate, but even if they did provide accurate data, the dangers of misinterpreting or misusing the data need to be considered.

Interpreting Health Data

Data have to be understood in order to provide useful and valuable information that can be acted upon.  This requires the units of the data to be known and the context in which the data are collected to be appreciated.  Doctors have years of training to understand data about health markers and consider the markers in the context of the individual patient, their lifestyle and average factors.  The same data are now available to anyone to capture with mobile technology and apps.  Capturing data for personal body monitoring is easy but does it provide useful information?  What does the data mean?

For many people seeking to understand their data, the answer is to turn to Dr Google.  Google is used to compare their health data in relation to normal parameters, but what is normal for one person is abnormal for another.  A reading for one person may be fine but for another it may be an indicator of something being seriously wrong.  In addition, guidelines regularly change about the threshold levels of different factors across the population.  So are health gadgets a bit of fun, or do they provide access to dangerous data that can be misunderstood?  On the one hand, individuals may panic unnecessarily and seek advice from their doctor or local hospital unnecessarily, causing additional work in a health system that has reached capacity.  Alternatively, warning signs may be misinterpreted and mistakenly ignored.

So is health data dangerous? Should people be given access to data without the conceptual framework within which to accurately interpret the data and without the expertise to interpret data presented accurately within their personal context?

Just because we can capture data, does not mean we should capture data.

Capturing health data is technologically feasible, but if we do not have the knowledge and skills to create meaningful information from the data, is it socially acceptable to do so?

Further Reading: Interpreting data in context is discussed in Chapter 1 and Chapter 15.


Bara, S., (2014), ‘Are Health Apps Useful? Experts Warn Dangers of Wellness Phone Applications’, idigital Times, 31-12-2014, http://www.idigitaltimes.com/are-health-apps-useful-experts-warn-dangers-wellness-phone-applications-403907


Please use the following to reference this blog post in your own work:

Cox, S. A., (2015), ’Dangerous Data: A Health Warning’, 20 March 2015, http://www.managinginformation.org/dangerous-data-a-health-warning/, [Date accessed: dd:mm:yy]


© 2014 Sharon A Cox