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Big Data and Public Health Surveillance (Chinnawat Sakultangphaisal London School of Economics and Political Science Working Paper – The Innovation Knowledge Foundation)

Big Data and Public Health Surveillance (Chinnawat Sakultangphaisal London School of Economics and Political Science Working Paper – The Innovation Knowledge Foundation)

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This paper explores the benefits and limitations implied by the use of Big Data in public
health surveillance. Through evidence from the UK and other countries, the paper highlights
numerous benefits in using Big Data in this composite field. Such benefits include the ability to process and analyse data at a speed that is impossible to master manually, and the fact that this could lead to better effectiveness and efficiency in public health surveillance.

Possible limitations cover, on the other hand, the issues of design and implementation of data
collection in the system itself, the challenges connected to ensuring quality and coverage of
data, and the need for organisational restructuring. Privacy implications are also discussed in relations to ethical considerations.

The argument of the paper states that, although there are potential opportunities in using Big Data in public health surveillance, significant barriers remain, that make these benefits harder to reach.

www.thinkinnovation.org
This paper explores the benefits and limitations implied by the use of Big Data in public
health surveillance. Through evidence from the UK and other countries, the paper highlights
numerous benefits in using Big Data in this composite field. Such benefits include the ability to process and analyse data at a speed that is impossible to master manually, and the fact that this could lead to better effectiveness and efficiency in public health surveillance.

Possible limitations cover, on the other hand, the issues of design and implementation of data
collection in the system itself, the challenges connected to ensuring quality and coverage of
data, and the need for organisational restructuring. Privacy implications are also discussed in relations to ethical considerations.

The argument of the paper states that, although there are potential opportunities in using Big Data in public health surveillance, significant barriers remain, that make these benefits harder to reach.

www.thinkinnovation.org

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Published by: THINK The Innovation Knowledge Foundation on Nov 04, 2013
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05/15/2014

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 Big Data in Public Health Surveillance: Opportunities and Limitations
Chinnawat Sakultangphaisal London School of Economics and Political Science Working Paper – The Innovation Knowledge Foundation
Abstract
This paper explores the benefits and limitations implied by the use of Big Data in public health surveillance. Through evidence from the UK and other countries, the paper highlights numerous benefits in using Big Data in this composite field. Such benefits include the ability to process and analyse data at a speed that is impossible to master manually, and the fact that this could lead to better effectiveness and efficiency in public health surveillance. Possible limitations cover, on the other hand, the issues of design and implementation of data collection in the system itself, the challenges connected to ensuring quality and coverage of data, and the need for organisational restructuring. Privacy implications are also discussed in relations to ethical considerations. The argument of the paper states that, although there are potential opportunities in using Big Data in public health surveillance, significant barriers remain, that make these benefits harder to reach.
 
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1.
 
Introduction
Following the British Government’s announcement of the willingness and plan to become a world’s leader in public health surveillance (DH, 2013), electronic public health surveillance and health informatics in relation to Big Data have been brought back to the realms of ICT and health, with respect to both emerging and advanced markets (Ohno-Machado, 2012). This topic, largely at the centre of academic debate in both the medical and the information systems domains, has witnessed high discussion and contestation of the domain of Big Data with relation to public health. With reference to this debate, the purpose of this paper is that of putting forward the argument that the use of Big Data in health care is, in principle, valuable in enhancing the effectiveness of public health surveillance; yet, due to several barriers, the benefits of using Big Data in public health surveillance are currently limited. This paper firstly defines the terms “Big Data” and “Public Health Surveillance”, and their current use in the information systems domain. It then explores, in turn, the opportunities and limitations as well as the factors which could prevent the effective use of Big Data in public health surveillance, basing the evidence primarily on data from NHS Direct. After attempting to evaluate the benefits and limitations – respectively covering the success of the initiatives in both the UK and elsewhere, its opportunities in improving health surveillance and reducing costs, and problems regarding coverage, data collection, data quality and privacy – the argument of the paper is stated, in terms of the idea that, although there might be numerous benefits of using Big Data in public health surveillance, the current limitations surrounding its use may prevent effective utilization of these data.
2.
 
Definition of Key Terms
In this paper, we adopt McKinsey’s definition of Big Data, as “datasets whose size is beyond the ability of typical database software tools to capture, store, manage, and analyse” (McKinsey, 2011: 1). In the health sector, Big Data is used primarily in data mining, which involves identifying unknown trends and patterns in the database and using the information to build predictive models (Kincaid, 1998, in Koh and Tan, 2005). It is proposed that through the many NHS channels, data regarding symptoms and public health concerns can be
 
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analysed weekly, daily, and by the hour (Baker et al., 2003) and, together with data from other online sources, this would form a part of a very extensive database (DH, 2013). For the purpose of this paper, Public Health Surveillance is defined as “the ongoing systematic collection, analysis, and interpretation of data, closely integrated with the timely dissemination of these data to those responsible for preventing and controlling disease and injury” (Thacker and Berkelman, 1988, in Nsubuga et al., 2006: 997). Although public health surveillance could generally be carried out in many forms (WHO, 2008), this paper relates the concept of public health surveillance to that of information processed and collected by the government and large healthcare organisations, analysed through a variety of ICT systems. One of the more recent examples of the use of Big Data in public health surveillance lies in Google Flu Trends, a daily online surveillance platform which utilises aggregated flu-related search data on Google to estimate the level of current flu activity around the world, whose estimates are very similar to those produced by traditional flu activity indicators by the U.S. Center for Disease Control (Google, 2013). Although this, together with many other projects, appears to signal very promising opportunities, it is important to acknowledge that there are limitations surrounding utilization, and we now turn, therefore, to the evaluation of the benefits and limitations of such initiatives. 
3.
 
Benefits of Big Data in Public Health Surveillance
This section considers the benefits and opportunities which could arise from the use of Big Data in public health surveillance. According to the Disease Control Priorities Project, Big Data has the implicit capability to provide “real-time, early warning information (…) about health problems that need to be addressed in a particular population” (WHO, 2008: 1), which is critical in preventing disease outbreaks as decision makers could develop appropriate and rapid responses when diseases begin to spread (ibid.). This is further supported by Bravata et al. (2002: 15) who argue that “the nation’s capacity to respond to bioterrorism depends in part on the ability (…) to detect, manage, and communicate during a bioterrorism event”, and that, under circumstances of a bioterrorist attack, ICT and decision support systems could aid clinicians and health officials to respond effectively. With health surveillance systems in place, should people from the same geographical area report similar symptoms, the system could calculate the possibility of outbreaks of diseases and could alert

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