Flora DiCara '20

Flora DiCara smiling and holding her computer which is open on a digital copy of her thesisThesis Title: For The Record: A Study of Personal Data Disclosure and Electronic Healthcare Systems

In the spring of 2019, I traveled to Canberra, Australia. The goal of my trip was to observe and interview members of BETA, the Behavioral Economics Unit of the Australian government. I initially planned to write my thesis about the ways in which “nudge units” determine whether or not a particular issue can or should be solved with behavioral interventions. While this field work certainly influenced my thesis, the insights were different from what I had anticipated. On my first day in Australia, I made a friend named Casey. She told me about something called My Health Record, an electronic health record system launched by the Australian government. I learned that the enrollment structure had been switched from opt in to opt out; rather than having to take steps to enroll, individuals would become enrolled unless they indicated otherwise. Modifying the environments in which decisions are made is part of a larger arsenal of behavior change tools. My initial exposure to My Health Record happened entirely outside of my planned research.

In addition to my work at BETA, Professor Nick Biddle at Australian National University generously met with me to discuss survey best practices and his own work running one of the most extensive longitudinal panels in Australia. Serendipitously, several of the questions in recent survey waves pertained to My Health Record enrollment intentions and actions. What proportion of the individuals who stated that they intended to unenroll from My Health Record successfully completed the process when the option became available to them? Not only did my central thesis questions evolve as a result of my trip, but so did my approach to answering them. Did the changes to MHR enrollment make it harder for individuals to realize their “true” preferences, or did they simply reveal them? Rather than speculating about the impact of behaviorally informed policy, I sought to explore it experimentally.

A few pieces of advice:

  1. Your topic will probably change. Mine did. That is okay.
  2. A bad chapter is better than no chapter. Nothing will be perfect the first time around. In fact, even if you think something is perfect your advisor likely won’t.
  3. You have less time than you think. Your senior fall is going to be quite busy. Set deadlines and hold yourself to them.
  4. Be strategic about the classes you take. Try to take at least one class that is related to your thesis topic. Ask the professor if you can submit a thesis chapter as a term paper or final assignment. This will free up time, force you to make progress, and give you access to another source of feedback.
  5. Winter break should not be a break. The vast majority of my thesis was written over winter break. It is remarkable how much you can accomplish when there is no other schoolwork to do.
  6. Editing will take longer than you think. Plan to reserve the entire month of February.
  7. Get a thesis buddy. I cannot stress this enough. Having someone who you enjoy spending time with who is also writing a thesis is immensely helpful. I met with my thesis buddy every single day for a period of several months. I missed my daily excuse to see her once the process was over.