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by Renata Smith, MPH


In this growing era of ‘wearable tech’, from Google Glass to the forthcoming Apple watch, our lives are increasingly intertwined with technology. What comes along with this every day technology is vast amounts of digital data. The scale is such that terms like exabyte (1 billion gigabytes) exist, and “Big Data” is now a common phrase. Big Data refers not only to the almost incomprehensible amounts of data being generated and stored but also to the ability to extract new insights from this data.
Throughout the years, most research projects have been limited to small(er) sample sizes due to cost, time, or operational constraints. Studies that enroll thousands of people (like the Framingham Heart Study or our own Project Viva) have been unique in their large size. But the technological advances we have made in the last 20 years are allowing research to push past operational constraints and move into an era where millions of individuals and billions of data points are accessible and feasible to analyze.

The piloting of research on the “quantified self” – the collection of data on day-to-day activities, made easy using wearable devices that collect everything from heart rate to sleep – is a first step. The 100K Wellness Project is a pilot study from a team at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, Washington. Their goal is to test the workings of the ‘P4 medicine’ paradigm – healthcare which is predictive, preventive, personalized, and participatory – rather than the standard ‘reactive’ healthcare system. To achieve this, a 100 person pilot (which will eventually be scaled up to 100K+ persons) will collect daily data on everything from sleep patterns and behaviors to stool samples, as well as sequencing participants’ genes. By collecting such large amounts of individuals’ data, the researchers anticipate the ability to predict and prevent disease for individuals. Current participants also have the added benefit of health coaches, who work with the individuals to optimize their health and wellbeing based on the results of the collected data.

While there are very important cautions about data security, false positives, and unnecessary and potentially harmful interventions, utilizing Big Data for the improvement of human health may make significant contributions. Time will tell.

 


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