Today, I can definitely state that the concept identified as “reality mining” will revolutionize Public Health at international level in a very short period of time. I would really like to have the power to make people join the movement that the MIT magazine, Technology Review, considered “one of the technologies most likely to change the way we live”.
To make it clearer, let’s see how the concepts evolved.
First, something that scientists called “data mining” appeared and it represents, in natural language, the computer science with the capacity to analyze large data sets using methods of artificial intelligence, automatic learning and statistics to capture information and turn it into something comprehensible.
Then, this evolved to what was called “text mining”, which incorporates the capacity to analyze – in addition to data – unstructured “full texts” which are hyper-linked.
And today, the Information Society comes up with this new and revolutionary concept called “reality mining”, that is 100% integrated to the concept of “big data”. According to Wikipedia: “Reality mining is the collection and analysis of machine-sensed environmental data pertaining to human social behavior, with the goal of identifying predictable patterns of behavior”. It means, “something” which allows to identify and anticipate situations and make decisions based on human social behavior.
How does all this relate to Public Health?
In recent years, thanks to the fast-paced growth of connectivity in the world, access to health services became something that could be available for all, using telemedicine in the most remote and vulnerable areas, mainly through mobile phone technology, the most relevant communication technology at global level.
Internet and mobile utilization provide an unbelievable amount of data as regards the social behavior of people, such as Internet searches, messages posted on social networks, products bought, places visited, where people eat, etc., among other daily activities. This data, properly used within ethical standards, can create new opportunities to identify and monitor public health issues such as the early occurrence of diseases, outbreak detection, spread of certain kinds of influenza, quick identification of food-borne diseases, etc., as well as to provide support in disasters and emergency situations through the quick location of people, among others. And although this is not specifically the subject of this post, it is important to remember the origin of the Katrina People Finder tool used during the renowned hurricane that devastated the city of New Orleans in the United States. This project was implemented during the course of the emergency by a group of volunteers who manually recorded more than 15,000 names of lost and affected people on a Wiki platform so that others could be found. Consequently, it is very important to understand that the web contains much more information about “us” that we ourselves have or create, and today this is known as “digital shadow”.
In 2008, Google and the US-CDC (Centers for Disease Control), launched a web site called Google Flu Trends which, by analyzing Internet searches, allows to reveal the estimate occurrence of a comparable disease in a particular sector of the population during a certain period of time. The idea was conceived based on the premise that increasingly often people access Google to search for flue-related topics when they have flue.
If we consider non-communicable diseases (NCDs) from the point of view of social behavior, new theories emerge suggesting that “non-communicable diseases” might start to be “communicable”, symbolically speaking, as a result of “imitating” human behaviors easily accessible through social networks. And this includes both positive aspects, such as the good practices of physical activity or healthy food consumption, recommended readings, etc., as well as negative aspects which include unhealthy habits such as smoking, high-fat and high-calorie food consumption, lack of physical exercise, unsafe habits, etc., among other practices that might be “imitated” from our virtual connections or people we follow on social networks because they capture our admiration or interest.
This is the case of communicable diseases. Research and control of communicable diseases could greatly benefit from data captured by mobile phones or “clicks” on social behaviors. They are extremely powerful tools for the early detection of cases or identification of affected areas.
Allow me to share some data from different specialized sources in Internet statistics that enable the visualization of the mass of data stored in and transmitted through cyberspace which is part of the most important mega-source of information and knowledge ever in the history of humanity and which essentially shows a growing trend:
- In 2010, 107 trillion emails (294 billion per day) were sent, out of which 89.1% are assumed to be unsolicited emails (SPAM).
- There are 1.88 billion email users around the world (2.9 billion is the number of email accounts worldwide, which indicates 3 email accounts every 2 people).
- There are 255 million websites (webpage portals) worldwide.
- Internet has 1.97 billion users in the world.
- There are 152 million blogs.
- Just in 2010, 25 billion tweets were sent on Tweeter.
- As of September 2010, Twitter had 175 million users
- By the end of 2009, Facebook had 600 million users (250 million incorporated as new users just in 2010).
- By the end of 2010, 30 billion pieces of content (photos, links, messages, etc.) were shared on Facebook per month.
- 2 billion videos are watched per day on YouTube.
- Flickr hosted 5 billion photographs uploaded by users, while Facebook hosts 36 billion of photos per year.
There is so much to do and, in general, we expect others to provide the solution. Yet, if we understand that we are the players in this new social movement, we can bring a radical change to the health of our societies and support our governments for better decision making. Therefore, we need to understand that it is our duty and responsibility to make the attempt.
I’m impressed and positively surprised to observe that, as time goes by, one of the first definitions of Internet given by Al Gore (as Vice President of the United States), which in theory should be increasingly moving away from reality, becomes more and more valid: “Internet is a new form of society oriented toward people”.
I would like to end with a quote from the report Digital Life in 2025: “Experts predict the Internet will become ‘like electricity’ — less visible, yet more deeply embedded in people’s lives for good and ill.” Source: PewResearch Internet Project