‘Big data’ and your health

‘Big data’ and your health

Dr Derrick Aarons

Saturday, December 31, 2016

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WHAT is ‘big data’? Well, data refers to information, and in recent years there has been a steady increase in the amount of personal information that is gathered about individuals — whether through data gathering forms for our completion, online surveys, research, or other means.

We are asked to provide our names, gender, date of birth, occupation, family members, where we live, salary range, passport or ID number, and other personally identifying information that we, sometimes, readily provide.

With the expanded ability of information technology (IT) to collect, store and analyse data collected from and about people, we are now able to analyse extremely large data sets to reveal patterns, trends and associations, especially relating to human behaviour and interactions. This large volume of data has been termed ‘big data’.


Big data is now being generated around us continuously, and every digital process and social media exchange is helping to produce it. Systems, sensors and mobile devices transmit it, and so big data is arriving from multiple sources at alarming velocity, volume and variety.

Many of the investments in IT are now therefore going towards managing and maintaining big data. Here, the volume is so large that the traditional database and software techniques, as well as data processing applications, are inadequate to deal with them. Further, many challenges exist, including data capturing, storing and retrieving, searching, sharing, transfer, visualisation, querying, updating, and privacy of information.

What is crucial, however, is not the amount of data about us that is collected and stored, but rather what organisations do with that data.

Consequently, big data is changing the way people within organisations work together, and can affect or effect decision-making, threats and fraud, as well as new sources of revenue. However, while big data can provide significant value, it can also present significant risk regarding privacy, security and data governance.


According to a recent article in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, big data now makes it possible to predict which children will grow up to be the greatest economic burden on a community or society.

The researchers from Duke University in the USA analysed the lives of nearly a thousand people from birth to age 38 years in the city of Dunedin, New Zealand, and found that 20 per cent of the population accounted for 80 per cent of social costs such as crime, welfare dependence, and health care needs when they become adults.

Just about one-fifth of the study population accounted for 81 per cent of criminal convictions and 77 per cent of ‘deadbeat’ dads. They consumed three-quarters of drug prescriptions, two-thirds of welfare benefits, more than half of the nights spent by people in hospital, and more than half of the cigarettes smoked.

The researchers reported that they could have predicted which adults were likely to incur these costs from as early as age three years, based on their assessments of ‘brain health’, and so there was a hope that early interventions could avoid some of these social costs.


Big data was essential in identifying candidates, as the researchers reported they knew every location they lived and every name they had used. They could match them with virtually 100 per cent accuracy, going back many years.

The digitalisation of people’s lives had allowed them to quantify precisely how much a person costs society, and which people are using multiple and different costly health and social services. Apparently, the same people used the courts, welfare benefits, disability services, children’s services, and the health care system.

The Duke University researchers stressed that this ability to identify and predict a person’s life course from their childhood status was an invitation to intervene rather than to discriminate, as the study gave them a clear picture of what happens if society does not intervene.


The research group was also testing what is called the Pareto principle or the ’80/20 rule’.

Over 100 years ago, Italian engineer and social scientist Vilfredo Pareto had observed that 80 per cent of wealth is controlled by 20 per cent of the population. This turned out to be a ‘rule of thumb’ in computer science, biology, physics, economics, and many other fields.

The researchers observed that most expenses from social problems are concentrated in a small segment of the population, and so whatever segment of the health, social or judicial system that you examine, you will find such a concentration. They referred to that group as "high-needs/high-costs".

However, a critique is that children from certain social backgrounds are disproportionately likely to be targeted by systems of social intervention and control, and these findings do not tell us about the influence of brain chemistry or the genetic control of behaviour. Further, if misbehaviour is defined very loosely, then it would maximise the numbers of children drawn into the category in ways that increase the likelihood of statistically significant results.

Whilst such research can lead to the stigmatisation of children, our society should, nevertheless, heed the knowledge gained as we plan, going forward.

Derrick Aarons MD, PhD is a consultant bioethicist/family physician, a specialist in ethical issues in medicine, the life sciences and research, and is the ethicist at the Caribbean Public Health Agency – CARPHA. (The views expressed here are not written on behalf of CARPHA)

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