NIH Harnessing Big Data for Infectious Disease Surveillance

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has led an international team of experts from multiple disciplines in putting together a series of articles on harnessing the power of "Big Data" to help with infectious disease surveillance.

For the past two decades, the term “Big Data” has garnered attention across the world, with the healthcare sector paying close attention to how the plethora of data pulled from electronic medical records, the internet, and social media could be used to help positively shape patient outcomes.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is taking it a step further by analyzing “the growing body of research on the subject,” and publishing their results as a series of articles found in a special issue of The Journal of Infectious Diseases, according to a recent press release.

Although using Big Data for infectious disease surveillance can be more cost-effective and timely than traditional laboratory tests and data collection completed by public health institutions, the authors note that Big Data is not without its own set of issues. Identifiers such as demographic information may not be available, particularly in developing countries. In addition, social media data ebbs and flows with interest level. According to the authors, “Any novel data stream must be validated against established infectious disease surveillance data and systems.” It is for these reasons that they suggest the use of “hybrid tools that combine traditional surveillance with Big Data… serving to complement, rather than replace existing methods.”

Authors on the 10-article supplement include experts from the fields of epidemiology, computer science, and modeling. These experts report on, “opportunities and challenges associated with three types of data: medical encounter files, such as records from healthcare facilities and insurance claim forms; crowdsourced data collected from volunteers who self-report symptoms in near real time; and data generated by the use of social media, the internet and mobile phones, which may include self-reporting of health, behavior and travel information to help elucidate disease transmission.”

A description of each of the ten articles included in the supplement is available in the press release.

As infectious diseases continue to threaten the lives of humans and animals around the world, new ways to track them are always needed. To this end, Professor Shweta Bansal, a co-editor on the supplement, states in the press release, “To be able to produce accurate forecasts, we need better observational data that we just don’t have in infectious diseases. There’s a magnitude of difference between what we need and what we have, so our hope is that big data will help us fill this gap.”