Making Big Data a Force for Good

Jul 5, 2013, 8:00 AM, Posted by Pioneer Blog Team

Pioneering the Use of Personal Health Data Illustration.

In case you missed it, the New York Times recently devoted a section to the business and culture of big data. “Virtually every field, from science to sports to public health, is being transformed by data-driven discovery and decision-making,” observed writer Steve Lohr. The coverage included several insights into the intersections of data and health. We were especially interested to read about data scientist Jeff Hammerbacher’s new role at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine (he used to run the data-mining team at Facebook), where he’s “exploring genetic and other medical data in search of breakthroughs in disease modeling and treatment.” Also of interest: how CVS is using data to “stage-manage paths to the prescription counter” (apparently, those with chronic health problems are their best customers), and this chart of devices that track health data.

We were also glad to see Learning to Love Big Data, an article by Harvard’s Nicholas Christakis on the website for Boston’s NPR station, WBUR. Dr. Christakis, a Pioneer grantee, acknowledges that “in the wake of the NSA surveillance leak, it’s easy to see why ‘big data’ has a big image problem.” We’ve definitely begun to see a big data backlash as of late. So we were heartened to see this coverage in the Times, which seems to emphasize the constructive potential of big data, while of course recognizing the dangers (for example, this article by Natasha Singer covers ways to make your online tracks harder to follow).

We think Dr. Christakis sums it up best:

"Like any technology, big data can be used for good as well as evil. This is an age-old dilemma when it comes to scientific and technological advances. Do we use nuclear physics to build bombs or to free us from fossil fuels? Do we exploit behavioral insights to help people improve their lives or to exploit their weaknesses?"

We here at Pioneer are committed to doing whatever we can to make big data a force for good. We’d love to hear how you’re using data to make the world a better place, both in health and health care and in other fields (interdisciplinary examples are great inspiration).

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.