With the proliferation of smartphones and the Internet of Things, we leave a daily digital footprint of everything from our activity levels and health metrics to our location and habits. And, as health and activity monitoring devices reach ubiquity, individuals are increasingly interested in measuring daily activities that affect their health—from how well they sleep, to how much and how well they eat, to how much they move, and more.
On an individual level, we can use these metrics to elicit behavior change and achieve better health. On an aggregate level, data scientists can use this cloud of information to create and apply algorithms that predict relationships between variables such as exercise, social behavior, eating and sleeping habits, activity levels and overall health. This level of analysis paves the way for discoveries that will transform how we prevent, detect and treat illness. Moreover, now that we have a burgeoning cloud of data about human behavior, we can positively impact the way we behave as individuals and as a society.
“Every single thing we do in this world is triggering some amount of data,” said Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and Square, on “The Human Face of Big Data,” a PBS documentary released in February 2016. “And most of that data is meaningless until someone adds some interpretation of it; that someone adds a narrative around it.” For an example of how the interpretation of all this data is making the world a better place, there exists no better example than health care, asserts Bernard Marr, contributor for Forbes.
Using Big Data to Predict Epidemics, Personalize Medicine
“Beyond improving profits and cutting down on wasted overhead, Big Data in health care is being used to predict epidemics, cure disease, improve quality of life and avoid preventable deaths,” Marr says. “With the world’s population increasing and everyone living longer, models of treatment delivery are rapidly changing, and many of the decisions behind those changes are being driven by data.”
In Africa, during the height of the Ebola virus epidemic, for example, mobile phone location data was highly valuable in efforts to track population movements, which helped to predict the spread of the Ebola virus.
Personalized medicine, a hot topic in the health care field, utilizes an individual’s genetic makeup, along with their environment and lifestyle, to predict illness and determine the best treatment. Using Big Data aggregation, this information can be compared with thousands of others to offer more statistical relevancy than ever before, says Marr.
Despite all of the positive potential of Big Data, many cite concerns over the increased possibility of privacy and security breaches. As long as proper measures are taken to protect and encrypt individual data, the proliferation of Big Data in itself offers benefits that can outweigh the risks.
“Of course, no data is more personal than our medical data, so extremely secure safeguards have to be put in place to make sure the information only gets to those whom we meant to see it,” says Marr. “The growing trend toward centralization of medical data will cause (privacy) concern, but as long as privacy and security can be maintained, it is certain to play a big part in the development of new treatments, and add to our growing understanding of how our bodies work, and how we can make sure they carry on working as long as possible.”
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