Big Data for Public Health

Published on
September 16, 2020
Written by
Kayla Benjamin
Read time
5 min

Big Data has been advertised as the miracle solution for the digital age's corporate woes, so what does this mean for Canada's "archaic" public health system?

Big Data technologies can store massive amounts of data, and these technologies are already used in the public health and health sciences fields. Types of big data in these sectors include(1) genomic/ biological, (2) geospatial, (3) electronic health records, (4) personal monitoring, and (5) social media. But Big Data hardly lives up to its inclusion as "hype" in the technology world if all it is is storage capacity.

Enter Big Data analytics

Big Data analytics allows us to harness the power of Big Data and extract meaningful insights. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Big Data has been employed to forecast and understand the virus's reach. This has been influential in enabling scientists, public health workers, and health policymakers to make informed decisions while fighting the pandemic.

In regards to types of Big Data:

  1. Genomic and biological data allows analysts to evaluate the evolving strains of the virus.
  2. Geospatial data tracking of population movement and viral epidemiology provides a view of population risk and public health recommendations compliance.
  3. Electronic health records help public health practitioners identify higher-risk populations.
  4. Personal monitoring has taken the shape of the COVID-19 Alert App to break the cycle of infection via contact tracing.
  5. Social media is used to track and address widespread misinformation and public opinion surrounding the virus and public health recommendations.

While these uses of Big Data have been critical aspects of the fight against COVID-19, they are by no means perfect systems. Advances in Big Data management and data preparation happen every day, advances that are necessary to evolve our ability to source, aggregate, and synthesize these types of information. Canada's public health system has faced severe backlash throughout the pandemic for it's "archaic" data system. Canadian public health units are decades behind in data technology; in fact, all deaths in Canada are still recorded via paper records.

According to an article in the Globe and Mail, CIHI spokeswoman Alex Maheux said, "the COVID pandemic is certainly exposing gaps in important data flows within and between Canada's health care systems." Researchers across the country have voiced their concern over the number of unknowns when it comes to Canada's COVID-19 crisis. Like statistician Michael Wolfson, some have gone as far as to suggest that these gaps impede our ability to respond to the problem and could slow our ability to transition away from stringent public health measures.

The power of Big Data can only go as far as the systems in place to collect and analyze it allow. So it is no surprise that a system still using paper records submitted by fax cannot produce real-time insights.

Improving Canada's public health processes has been talked about for years. However, as our current systems' implications remain at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic, "all talk, no action" will not cut it. In all industries, practice areas are headed for a paradigm shift with the evolution of Big Data. And with endless opportunities at the intersection of public health and Big Data, Canada must invest in improving our current systems.

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