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.