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National collaborative to test how big data can improve population health

Virginia Commonwealth University announced today that it will lead an initiative to test how big data can support public health and social policy in San Diego County, California.

The VCU Center on Society and Health will collaborate with data scientists at the University of California-San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute to support Live Well San Diego (www.livewellsd.org), a nationally recognized population wellness initiative led by San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency to improve the health, safety and economic well-being of its 3.2 million residents. The project is funded by a $500,000 planning grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“Other industries are putting advanced analytics to work, and we’re excited to show how public health can do the same,” said Steven Woolf, M.D., the project’s principal investigator and director of the VCU Center on Society and Health. “San Diego County is the perfect place to test the use of big data in improving population health. They have more than 100 partner organizations committed to improving the health and safety of the community and are eager to see how big data can help improve their decisions.”

Woolf said that present-day methods of inquiry are proving to be inadequate in explaining the complex interconnections between biological factors, health care and the behavioral, socio-economic and environmental factors that lead to health or illness.

The emergence of machine learning and other new computing techniques to process large amounts of big data presents an opportunity to change this situation. Data sets in every domain that affect health have grown to considerable size, such as the clinical data that are being pooled by health and social service information exchanges and electronic medical records; data that consumers store on mobile devices; census records; social media and network data; and data on factors such as air quality, noise, and climate. Geospatial tools allow this information to be mapped to specific neighborhoods to help residents, community-based agencies and policymakers make more informed choices.

Researchers will integrate existing data from these types of sources and work closely with the San Diego community stakeholders to prioritize the issues to be addressed. 

“We know there are gaps in how big-picture, regional data are used to inform the policies and practices at the provider level,” said Nick Macchione, director of the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency. “This highly innovative partnership is not only going to close that gap in San Diego County, but provide a roadmap for other regions across the country to create a culture of health. It’s a galactic amount of data that we will harmonize to better humanize what we do in helping the general public to live well.”

San Diego County HHSA officials will convene local agencies, community-based organizations, business leaders and community leaders to help direct the researchers to priority questions and design a “first glimpse” project as a test case for applying data analytics for practical application. The UCSD Center for Wireless and Population Health Systems will work in partnership with VCU to apply their expertise in the display, analysis and modeling of data sets.

This is a great opportunity to showcase the power of marrying community engagement with data science

“This is a great opportunity to showcase the power of marrying community engagement with data science,” said Kevin Patrick, M.D., professor of family medicine and public health at UCSD. “The local community knows their information priorities better than anyone. Our job is to gather the data they need to make better decisions. This kind of user-oriented research is important to us in academia, as well as the service provider community.”

Woolf hopes the project will kickstart a national trend toward using big data for population health applications.

“There are states, counties and cities across the country that are following the same path as San Diego County,” he said. “They may be at different stages of community engagement and their access to data may vary, but we think all of them will see the value of this demonstration project in informing their efforts to building better health, living safely and thriving.”

About VCU and VCU Medical Center

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 226 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Sixty-seven of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 13 schools and one college. MCV Hospitals and the health sciences schools of Virginia Commonwealth University comprise VCU Medical Center, one of the nation’s leading academic medical centers. For more, see www.vcu.edu.