TEDMED: ‘Small data’ on digital behavior can inform healthcare

The digital traces consumers leave behind in their mobile technology interactions offer clues to their well-being and can inform their healthcare, Deborah Estrin, computer science professor at Cornell Tech in New York City and co-founder of Open mHealth, said at the TEDMED conference on April 17.

“We are continually generating digital breadcrumbs, and those breadcrumbs together form digital traces,” Estrin told an audience. Social networks, search engines, mobile operators, online games and e-commerce sites all aggregate and analyze these traces or “small data”, but no services are considering the value of returning this information back to the consumer, she said.  

While service providers are worried about “a PR nightmare happening” if consumers knew the extent of information captured, a robust and sustainable privacy policy based on transparency could open the doors to consumers understanding more about themselves and their health, she said. At Cornell Tech, Estrin currently is working on prototypes, or vehicles to repackage consumers' small data that is digestible for the end user.

“We should be able to mine those digital traces for our own purposes,” Estrin said, noting that data-driven insights often detect early warnings to a health problem.

For instance, she said digital traces can inform a patient whether a new medication or supplement is working. For instance, if someone begins taking a supplement for arthritis, she said their digital footprint would provide a quantitative and objective measures showing if that person is more or less sedentary.

“Changes are often subtle, but it does play out in day-to-day behaviors,” Estrin said. Patients generally provide subjective feedback following a medication regimen change but digital traces could provide on-the-ground data to support or question patient observations.

Estrin said patients with memory disorders, Chrohn’s disease and depression in particular could benefit from access to their digital traces.

Small data can benefit “young and old alike,” Estrin said, and spoke of the slowing down of her father before he passed away. At the time, he had not been replying to emails as quickly and shortened his daily walks, but “this did not show up at a regular visit to the cardiologist,” she said.

“Like many of us, he pulled together for his favorite doctor and the doctor saw nothing atypical in the 90-year-old man. But a social pulse graph could have done just that,” she said, adding that such information would have allowed her father to communicate systematically with the care team.

The ability to bring greater vigilance to everyday care is possible as the data already exists, and now is the time to turn the noise of data into markers of health, she said. But for that to happen, access to the digital traces remains the greatest hurdle.

“We need to liberate the data back to us, the user,” Estrin said.  “Let’s get our search engines and mobile carriers to package data for us.”

For more information on Estrin’s work, visit smalldata.tech.cornell.edu.