Q&A: In the Quest for Personalized Medicine, Beware the Data Deluge, says Theresa MacPhail

Big data is good for identifying gaps in knowledge but not so good for prediction

2 min read
Illustration of Theresa MacPhail.
Illustration: Jacob Thomas

human os icon

illustration of MacPhail Illustration: Jacob Thomas

One person, properly motivated and equipped, can generate terabytes of personal data. While all that fine-grained information could prove invaluable, it also threatens to overwhelm the health care system. Medical anthropologist Theresa MacPhail of Stevens Institute of Technology spent several months during the H1N1 flu pandemic observing researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as they struggled to make sense of all that big data.

IEEE Spectrum: What did you see at the CDC on a typical day?

Theresa MacPhail: During the first wave of the pandemic, the analysts were getting 1,000 to 1,200 e-mails a day—spreadsheets, lab reports, surveillance alerts, direct answers to their own questions. They had multiple conference calls and at least two or three in-person meetings every day. It was intense.

As you recount in your book The Viral Network, your CDC sources told you “the data were crap.” What did they mean?

That the data was divorced from any context—information needed to interpret the data, like what lab did it come from, how were they running their assays. “Good” information came from sources they knew and trusted. There are some older CDC analysts I think of as “context repositories”—they can instantly provide the context for a new piece of information.

Is that something a machine can do?

The CDC, WHO [World Health Organization], and other institutions are trying to design better surveillance algorithms. When you’re identifying a new outbreak, it’s important to look at tweets, blogs, news reports—all that unstructured data that’s so hard to handle. These massive computer programs like Google Flu Trends are designed to scan for certain keywords and spit out reports. But a human still has to go through it.

I think we’re looking at big data wrong. The real usefulness of big data is to show gaps in our thinking. In the Medicare system, for instance, many people weren’t opting for drug coverage, even though it would save them money. So they redesigned the enrollment campaign to get more people signed up. Big data didn’t say why those people didn’t sign up, and it didn’t solve the problem, but it showed us we had a problem.

This article originally appeared in print as “Will Our Data Drown Us?.”

The Conversation (0)

Windows 11 Is Here, But Will It Run on Your PC?

Some of the actual beta testers will now have to downgrade to Windows 10

3 min read
Harry Campbell

Microsoft's Windows 11 is awesome. It also abandons millions of users.

The latest version of Microsoft's 36-year-old operating system began its rollout on 5 October 2021. Some eligible devices may not receive it until mid-2022. Still, there's a chance your PC will have the update by the time you read this.

If you have a new PC, that is. Windows 11 is a free upgrade, but in a break from past releases, Microsoft will exclude hundreds of millions of PCs that run Windows 10.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less

Drones to Attempt Rescue of Starving Dogs Stranded by Volcano

Authorities have granted permission for a drone company to try to airlift dogs on La Palma to safety

3 min read
Left: Leales.org; Right: Cabildo de La Palma en directo

For the past month, the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the Spanish island of La Palma has been erupting, necessitating the evacuation of 7,000 people as lava flows towards the sea and destroys everything in its path. Sadly, many pets have been left behind, trapped in walled-off yards that are now covered in ash without access to food or water. The reason that we know about these animals is because drones have been used to monitor the eruption, providing video (sometimes several times per day) of the situation.

In areas that are too dangerous to send humans, drones have been used to drop food and water to some of these animals, but that can only keep them alive for so long. Yesterday, a drone company called Aerocamaras received permission to attempt a rescue, using a large drone equipped with a net to, they hope, airlift a group of starving dogs to safety.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less
Mercer

Your career is like your life. It evolves in stages, each of which looks unique and has distinct needs. Wherever you are in your career, the IEEE Member Group Insurance Program is designed to offer solutions geared for your needs – today and tomorrow, too. Early Career. Mid Career. Late Career. Post-Career/Retirement. Whoever you need to protect — yourself, your family, or your business partners/employees — we’re your resource for insights and options.

Trending Stories

The most-read stories on IEEE Spectrum right now