What's Next Health: A New World for Changing Health Behavior

Jul 8, 2013, 8:00 AM, Posted by Tracy Orleans

tracy_orleans_ Senior Scientist Tracy Orleans

Each month, What’s Next Health talks with leading thinkers about the future of health and health care. Recently, we talked with Jake Porway, founder of DataKind about Big Data in service of humanity. In this post, RWJF's Senior Scientist Tracy Orleans reflects on Jake's visit to the Foundation.

How is it that Edna St. Vincent Millay was able to describe so eloquently the magic and potential of big data in 1939? This favorite poem has been hanging above my desk for years:

”Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun; but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric.”

As I listened to Jake Porway, founder of DataKind, talk passionately during his recent visit about the many ways big data could be harnessed for social good, I was inspired and energized. It was an “aha” moment.

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Here was a master weaver showing us how reams of guiding tapestry could be spun from data all too often overlooked and uncombined—especially in the hands of data scientists working in collaboration with subject matter experts, designers and developers to ask the right questions and uncover the right connections.

One of the light bulbs that went off for me was the realization that we had an impressive history of combining and analyzing big data from behavioral observations and public records to build on as we entered the new world of unprecedented data from sensors, social media, mobile devices and self-tracking.

For instance, our Bridging the Gap researchers told a powerful story of inequity and disparity through the creative amalgamation of data that had otherwise lain fallow. They linked Dun and Bradstreet zip code level data about different types of food stores in neighborhoods with population data from the U.S. Census to help us understand disparities in access to healthy food. This data was then linked to data on diet and weight to reveal that limited access to full-service supermarkets and easy access to convenience stores and small groceries makes a difference in consumption of healthy/less healthy food and obesity prevalence.

Similarly, it was by bringing together Bridging the Gap co-directors, economist Frank Chaloupka and behavioral scientist Lloyd Johnston, to connect the data on self-reported tobacco use, state tobacco sales and tobacco taxes that we discovered the power of  tobacco tax increases to reduce youth tobacco use. The pattern revealed by linking this previously uncombined data, and the story it told, paved the way for historic policy and public health successes, in the US and around the world. 

Now there is exciting new “big data” work on the horizon. Kevin Patrick at UCSD is embarking on a major patient- and person-generated real world/real time Health Data Exploration project to link a variety of digitized personal health and self-tracking data with publicly available environmental and policy data. These explorations are certain to chart new paths for improving individual and population health.

But going back to Millay's loom for a minute, what’s critical as we enter the new era of “big data” is the way we combine the uncombined. It is in this creative weaving where the greatest possibilities lie, and where new breakthrough solutions will be found. (Fittingly, the Jacquard loom was the model for early computer programming!)

So, at the front end of the current data revolution, we have unprecedented access to patient-generated data and more powerful looms (i.e., supercomputers) than we have ever had before. There is not a single problem we work on that can't benefit from insights only knowable through big data—gun violence, childhood obesity, antibiotic resistance, quality health care, healthy childhood development, you name it.

And, once we in the social change business are able to use big data to understand the ways consumers think and act, once we’re able to be as nimble as other industries in tracking the what and why of people's actions and tailoring feedback to influence healthy choices, we’ll enter a new world for changing health behavior.

We’re poised on the brink of a new “gifted age” of big data and the possibilities are limitless. To be sure, there’s a delicate line between using data to understand and using data to influence, and we must continually ask where that line is in terms of crossing privacy or ethics boundaries. But if we navigate these challenges well, if we ask the right questions and use the right "loom", the fabric we weave will help to point the way towards a broad new culture of health. 

Visit What’s Next Health to watch a conversation with Assistant Vice President, Research and Evaluation, Brian Quinn and RWJF's Pioneer Team Leader Jake Porway and view an infographic inspired by Jake's visit to RWJF.