It's time for all of us to become health data donors
Farming the data we generate on devices could lead to the next medical breakthrough
I bought myself a new smartwatch recently, ahead of my old Pebble turning to stone when Fitbit finally decides to switch the servers off. I didn't want a fitness tracker, but it seems I have little choice the market for bog-standard smartwatches has evaporated faster than my first Friday evening pint.
And so I finally plumped for the Huawei Watch 2 Sport, convinced mainly by a whopping great discount that reduced its price to 200. It's got a battery of sensors measuring my heartbeat, cadence and whether I'm pointing north or not. I pay little or no attention to them, but they beaver away in the background, collecting more data about my health than I care to know. So far today, for example, I've walked 4,522 steps, burned off 233kcal and climbed 54.8m, with my heart rate peaking at 112bpm.
None of this information makes my life richer. And yet, if it were combined with the data of the millions of other smartphone or watch owners out there well, then we've potentially got something very special.
Think about all the information your phone collects. In fact, you really don't need to think that hard. If you're an Android user, go to myaccount.google.com and have it laid bare for you. Google knows everywhere you've been, including the names of the restaurants you ate at, the supermarkets you visited, the coffee shop you stopped off at on the way to work.
It knows where work and home are, because you've doubtless plugged all that info into Google Maps before. It knows how you got to work, how long it took you, how fast you walked between the station and your office and if you've got a smartwatch on, it can tell you how fast your pulse was racing when you got there.
And that's only the information collected by relatively dumb devices. We now have all kinds of digital medical instruments feeding data to our smartphones. A diabetic friend of mine has a glucose monitoring device permanently affixed to his upper arm.
When he wants to check his glucose levels, he presses a small transmitter to his arm and takes a reading. The data is then sent wirelessly to his iPhone. He gets both an instant readout and historic data, helping him to detect the peaks and troughs that might otherwise send him into a diabetic coma.
As I write this very column, a story has just broken online about a new sensor that's compatible with the Apple Watch, which can detect dangerous levels of potassium in the body. The sensor fits into a slot on the watch strap and monitors the heart's electrical activity, looking for abnormal rhythms that are symptomatic of excess potassium (or hyperkalaemia, as the people who went to medical school call it). Hyperkalaemia can apparently trigger heart attacks and kidney failure, but it's also very tricky to spot.
Now imagine what we could do with all this rich data combined. Does repeated exposure to smog in big cities increase our risk to certain conditions? There's strong evidence that so-called particulate matter increases the risk of lung cancer, but with all the data collected from phones we could perhaps tell if the risk was greater for those who commuted into the city by train or by car, or which city's residents suffered most.
If, say, an NHS app let you report ailments such as a stomach upset or diarrhoea, could we link outbreaks of food poisoning to specific restaurants or supermarkets? Google already knows where you've eaten and bought food from it's not a massive leap to marry those two sets of data together and close down every dodgy kebab shop.
It could also be used to smash a few myths. If the location data revealed, for instance, that those who spend much of their time living close to phone masts are no more susceptible to cancer than those who don't, the tin foil hat brigade would have to find something else to worry about. The Daily Express would be out of business in weeks.
But it's not confirming these links that excites me as much as the chance findings you might discover from crunching all this data. We still don't know what causes many types of cancer and other conditions. Could studying the location, diet, heart rate, blood glucose and other medical data from millions of people give us clues? It certainly couldn't do any harm.
Best of all, this would require almost no effort on the part of the participants. We're all human data farms already we're collecting all this information, whether we want to or not. All that's needed is our permission to use it anonymously, of course.
In the same way we carry donor cards to pass organs to those who need them, we could all become data donors, willing to hand over our information stash to aid medical research. The key difference being you might still be alive to benefit from it, too.
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