Using population data to map the “social” genome
In today’s society digital information provides the framework for every aspect of our daily lives from school records, housing records and economic history. With the advent of computerized data as a way to facilitate the storing and accessing of information, we have not only created a footprint for what we do, but a virtual genetic code for who we are as individuals.
In a recent article in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Computer Society’s flagship publication, Computer, Hye-Chung Kum, Ph.D., an associate professor with the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Rural Public Health argues that this data, or our social genome, could be used in new ways to help better understand the concerns of a population and how to best meet their health and societal needs.
“Social Genome: Putting Big Data to Work for Population Informatics,” details a case study regarding the development of social genome projects that would develop new ways to access and repurpose large digital data sets, commonly termed “big data.” According to Dr. Kum, the project entails the creation of several region-based facilities that provide researchers with the ability to develop, integrate, manage and apply social and health data in a safe and securely monitored environment.
“Collectively these digital traces—across a group, town, county, state, or nation—form a population’s social genome,” said Dr. Kum. “If properly integrated, analyzed, and interpreted, social genome data could offer crucial insights into how best to serve our greatest societal priorities: healthcare, economics, education and employment.”
Many government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, have become increasingly interested in population informatics, which is the use of existing digital information for a new purpose. They have invested significant research efforts to improve cost, quality and access to health care and continue to lead efforts to turn raw data into useful measures for research and quality.
Public health research relies heavily on obtaining these large data sets and identifying unifying trends across a population. Information systems in the health sector have undergone significant changes making it possible to collect, store and process huge amounts of digital records. However, often times accessing big data has been difficult due to concerns associated with privacy, means of access, data integrations, and data management limiting the amount of data researchers can use.
“Never before in history have we had more data to use for population research,” said Dr. Kum. “However, privacy and confidentiality protection is critical to the success of population informatics research.”
According to Dr. Kum, there must be a shift in our understanding of protection and accountability of sensitive data. Through the use of secure computer software, the building of a safe environment, and increased governance and monitoring of how the data is collected and used, these projects would facilitate the growth of population informatics as a revolutionary public health research tool.