As a follow up to my recent blog “Cut me – I bleed data”, where I looked at the potential for DNA storage, I thought I would look at how the human body can create data, and how it can be used for our benefit. We are all used to the concept of pedometers; where a small device carried on the person counts the numbers of steps we take in a day. I’m fairly sure all the devices I’ve tried are faulty as it must be more than 300 steps from home to car to office to desk to coffee shop, right? Walking 10,000 steps per day is good for your health apparently, so I may be a little bit short of my daily target.
However a few things caught my eye recently; the first two are very similar – the “Fitbit” and Nike fuelband, both work in similar fashion and take the pedometer concept to the next level. These devices have the same basic aim; to encourage us to lead a healthy active lifestyle and to monitor our progress and feedback in a way that is of benefit to us. They can track our steps, distance travelled, calories consumed and can measure if we are climbing stairs. We can use the App provided on our smartphones, tablets or any other device to input the food we consume and track our goals graphically if we want.
Ever woke up tired in the morning, wanting just another 5 minutes? Well, the next interesting thing they can do is measure how we sleep and what our sleep patterns are; this can then be used to wake us gently in the correct sleep phase to ensure we are ready for the day. Without thinking about it you are slowly building a database about yourself, we create the data and use the instrument to record it, and you wondered where all the growth of data you keep hearing about is coming from? Some of it is your fault, I’m afraid.
That’s all data generation we can control, we choose to wear the device, download the data wirelessly, stand on the wireless scales and transfer information about ourselves, but what about things we would like to control but really not sure how to? What if we wanted to measure heart rate, brain activity, body temperature and hydration levels and rather than having our own database we wanted to share it with our doctor or consultant? We’re not too far away from reaching that stage.
An American based company has piloted the concept of stretchable electronics products that can be put on things like shirts and shoes, worn as temporary tattoos or installed in the body. These will be capable of measuring all the criteria above. Another company will begin a pilot program in Britain for a “Digital Health Feedback System” that combines both wearable technologies and microchips the size of a sand grain that can ride on a pill right through you. Powered by your stomach fluids, it emits a signal picked up by an external sensor, capturing vital data. Another firm is looking at micro needle sensors on skin patches as a way of deriving continuous information about the bloodstream.
The data generated by this technology could be used for Business Intelligence purposes in the healthcare markets, it could be shared between yourself and your doctor allowing proactive activity to occur to improve the care offered and improve efficiencies, and ultimately to reduce costs. No more waiting 7 days to see a doctor, your chosen device downloads data which can be shared with your practitioner, who in turn sends you an email recommending more exercise and more vegetables in your diet.
The ability to use anonymous data from a group of patients would allow health care providers to spot patterns over an entire population or specific geographies. For example, the need for continuous data on blood glucose levels, particularly Type I diabetes patients, has become critical in the treatment of the disease, providing impetus for monitoring devices.
If this kind of information exists for a lot of people, it is arguably folly to not look for larger trends and patterns. And not just in things like your blood count, because overlays of age, educational level, geography and other demographic factors could yield valuable insights. The essence of the Big Data age is the diversity of data sets combined in novel ways.
These technologies could be used to get people with difficult to pin down conditions like chronic fatigue to share information about themselves, this could include the biological data from devices, but also things like how well they slept, what they ate and when they got pain or were tired. Collectively, this could lead to evidence about how behaviour and biology conjure these states, and ultimately could lead to a solution to such problems.
So it’s not just businesses that can benefit from the analysis of data, individuals and the population at large are potential benefactors of the emerging ability of technology to provide analysis of seemingly random collections of data. As I hit the weekend I may not need a wearable electronic device to tell me my brain activity is slowing down or my hydration levels increase, but it won’t slow down the amount of data I’m able to generate on myself, and the contribution this data makes to my future health. Maybe I’ll be able to store my personal database on my own DNA, who knows?