Are you a Blue Mussel?


Over the summer we wrote about “Big Data,” a hot topic among scientists, policymakers and researchers. A few nights ago, I got a chance to attend a talk by John Gordon from IBM about approaches to problem solving in the age of Big Data. One of the coolest examples of the potential of “Big Data” that we’ve seen was when IBM released a computer named Watson that could process enough data accurately enough to compete, and win, the TV game show Jeopardy! Shortly after that feat, IBM announced they would be unleashing Watson on the most insidious disease of our time: Cancer.

While I was excited to hear about their work on cancer, I wound up learning a lot more about the context for how to use “big data” in areas beyond health care. there are still unturned stones for us to explore. Here are a few snippets from the talk:

  • 90 percent of all of the data in the world was created in the last two years. Think about what that may mean for the next two, five, or ten years…
  • The problem of “unstructured data” – data that is not identifiable without any context, can be thought of as follows: The sentence “He shot his first birdie just before dark” means different things to a golfer, a photographer, or a hunter. Organizing, classifying and understand data is just as important as collecting it.
  • In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, heavy monsoon rains each summer present challenges to city officials who don’t know where to evacuate citizens in any given moment. By analyzing data from historical weather patterns to soil sediment density, researchers can create a hotspots map to prioritize where to take action, saving lives and improving safety for upcoming events like the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
  • In Cancer treatment, doctors are facing exponential growth in the number of research papers, journal articles, academic studies and the corresponding recommendations to take for any given patient given her history, symptoms, diagnosis and a host of other factors. IBM has partnered with Memorial Sloan Kettering, (a LIVESTRONG Survivorship Center of Excellence) to put Watson to use to digest all of this complex information to make doctors’ and researchers lives easier, and make results more accurate and timely for patients.
  • A Nordic oil drilling company, in the wake of recent oil spills, wanted to know if they could detect early signs of leaks in their pipes and pumps. Instead of costly engineering solutions, IBM researchers devised an ingenious approach: they tagged a bunch of Blue Mussels near the pipelines. When there are impurities in the water, these mussels will snap shut. So when a mass of Blue Mussels close at the same time, something might be wrong.
  • It was this last example that captured my curiosity the most. The health care system could really use some of those Blue Mussels: Built in monitoring systems that can let administrators, doctors, researchers and others know what is going on, when there is a problem, and where it’s located.

    And then it struck me: We – the patients, the survivors, the family members – are the Blue Mussels. We are the common thread that runs between insurance companies, doctors’ offices and researchers’ trials. The future of health care problem solving and the next source of big data will be patient reported outcomes, satisfaction, pain measurements, symptom assessments, and the like. It will be up to the great minds of our era to capture those signals we are sending when things are working well, or when the system is breaking down and something goes wrong.

    So while Big Data is making some Big Progress, we shouldn’t be content to sit and watch it build around us. We need to be actively engaged, to turn our voices and our feedback into another stream of Big Data and clamp our proverbial shells down when something happens. Progress and meaningful health care improvement depends on it.


  1. Cori K says:

    It’s great to be the blue mussel, but actually getting people to pay attention when I clatter my shell? That’s the ultimate challenge here. It’s hard enough getting survivor organizations to pay attention, let alone medical professionals, insurance companies, researchers, and mass media.

  2. Nuschler says:

    Two things:
    1) I think you need to talk openly about what happened with Lance Armstrong. You need to get in front of this and say that the Foundation IS NOT lance Armstrong. It is about the people who work day to day with cancer patients and survivors.!! Get your story out there!!

    2) I have been recently diagnosed with Breast Cancer. Care is so terribly fragmented! Surgeons, oncologists, radiologists all with different opinions, treatment programs. Blue mussels would be clamping SHUT at this intersection of all of these “specialists.”
    I am finding out that breast cancer diagnosis and treatment is about 60% GUESStimate. It sucks!
    I don’t know what to do!

  3. LIVESTRONG says:

    We’d very much like to help you with treatment decisions. You should feel confident going into treatment. Call us when you can: 1-855-220-7777 or go online to

    1. Nuschler says:

      Great! More confusion!
      Your phone number is after hours and no way to leave a message!

      Your intake form is full of misspellings and I am a widow AND YOU DO NOT HAVE WIDOW OR WIDOWER AS AN ANSWER!

      I have contributed 1000s of dollars to Livestrong…I have given away 200 bracelets and this is how you run your website?? Really??

  4. LIVESTRONG says:

    We are open 9-5 CST M-F. I have sent an email to the cancer navigation staff to follow up with you asap.

  5. Pingback: LIVESTRONG Blog

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