My love for visualization has an unlikely source: a disease that nearly took our son’s life when he was just a year old. After weeks of pediatricians reassuring us that his weight loss, endless thirst, and vomiting were just a stomach bug, a virus, or something else that would pass, we landed in ER. We learned that our by-then-unconscious son had Type 1 diabetes, was in Diabetic Ketoacidosis, and might not make it.
He survived, and after a week in intensive care, we went home with carb counts, a glucose meter, and an insulin pump connected to our boy. He needed painstakingly exact doses of insulin. Being off by the fraction of a drop could be fatal. Life became a blur of numbers as we tried to match insulin to blood sugars to the carbohydrates in his food. We logged numbers in Excel, appalled we were managing roller coaster blood sugars just based on the previous day’s numbers.
And then data visualization saved the day. We got a “continuous glucose monitor” (CGM), a device that displayed our son’s blood sugar as a continuous trend line. Now we could see in real time when blood sugar was dangerously low or high. We had context for the numbers – insulin dosage, carb counts, the resulting blood sugars – and could take action.
Visualization has become a huge help in managing T1D. The CGM we use, Dexcom, offers users interactive visualizations and trend analysis to help them manage blood sugars. Another brand of CGM uses Watson to visualize blood sugar and make recommendations. An open source platform, Tidepool, lets users integrate data from insulin pumps and CGMs and then visualize, analyze, and decide what to do next.
Everyone living with Type 1 diabetes is by default a data analyst, with incredibly high stakes. My kid’s life is powered by data, shaped by visualization, and without those tools, not so long ago his lifespan would’ve been much shorter and uglier.
Data has the power to transform how we live. The unexamined life is not worth living, and we can either live outside of the data streams we leave in our wake or dive in and make sense of this brave new world being revealed to us.