When epidemiology meets Big Data (F5)

What are the chances to epidemiological intelligence?

When thinking about the usage of data in a health context, what is your first association? Is it Google and other ‘data leeches‘ of the GAFA-kind (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon)? Linked to that, is it concerns such as data privacy, data security? A lack of standards? The fear that the internet has the memory of an elephant and never forgets the information it has received?

Let’s assume that ongoing discussions and public awareness of the potential of data analysis have improved the reputation of Big Data and that there might be other associations such as „Opportunity!“ „Prevention!“ „Efficiency!“ or „Quality“ come up to your mind when hearing the term.

With this in mind, panellists at EHFG session about epidemiology meeting Big Data showcased some excellent examples on how data might actually advance public health questions in the broader context of epidemiology. 

Starting with Martin Seychell (Deputy Director-General for Health and Food Safety of the European Commission), the panel focussed on potential new paths towards public health surveillance. Seychall placed emphasis on how to exchange electronic health records within the member states – which appears to be a particularly demanding topic considering that most of the states do not even have an overarching solution nationally (not to mention names, but it is noticeable that even economically well-off countries have not managed to set up the needed infrastructure in the year 2019).

There was murmuring in the room by the audience as Seychall condensed the challenges of data exchange within the EU to the GDPR as a building block. 

Most participants seemed to agree to the point that data privacy and ethics are the most substantial foundations when wanting to profit from health surveillance programs. Therefore, Philip AbdelMalik, epidemiologist of the World Health Organisation, hit a sweet spot when stating that data is the most valuable resource on earth to date.

Building on that argument, Tyra Grove Krause, Head of Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology & Prevention at Statens Serum Institut, demonstrated how Danish citizens profit from public registers on the effectiveness and safety of vaccines. She highlighted the advantages (e.g. real-time, cost-efficient) but also the pitfalls (e.g., need of new algorithms, technical challenges) of data-driven information systems, culminating in the statement that we as a society need to embrace imperfect data. 

But are we willing to do so? And do we even know about the influence that data has on our behaviours?

The second session tried to approach the topic – with a prominent example of social media and its (unwanted) effects on vaccine hesitancy vs promotion – but it seems as there is much research to be done to answer that question. 

Overall, taking into consideration the many questions that remain to the usage of data in a public health context, the audience agreed that it should be used more than is currently the case.

However, the associations as stated in the beginning remain, and we need some success stories to disprove the myth that data usage goes hand in hand with data misusage – but has a lot of intelligent solutions to the remaining epidemiological challenges.

This Blog was written by Young Gasteiner Laura Oschmann.

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