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date: 16 October 2017

Summary and Keywords

The presence of large-scale data systems can be felt, consciously or not, in almost every facet of modern life, whether through the simple act of selecting travel options online, purchasing products from online retailers, or navigating through the streets of an unfamiliar neighborhood using global positioning system (GPS) mapping. These systems operate through the momentum of big data, a term introduced by data scientists to describe a data-rich environment enabled by a superconvergence of advanced computer-processing speeds and storage capacities; advanced connectivity between people and devices through the Internet; the ubiquity of smart, mobile devices and wireless sensors; and the creation of accelerated data flows among systems in the global economy. Some researchers have suggested that big data represents the so-called fourth paradigm in science, wherein the first paradigm was marked by the evolution of the experimental method, the second was brought about by the maturation of theory, the third was marked by an evolution of statistical methodology as enabled by computational technology, while the fourth extended the benefits of the first three, but also enabled the application of novel machine-learning approaches to an evidence stream that exists in high volume, high velocity, high variety, and differing levels of veracity.

In public health and medicine, the emergence of big data capabilities has followed naturally from the expansion of data streams from genome sequencing, protein identification, environmental surveillance, and passive patient sensing. In 2001, the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics published a road map for connecting these evidence streams to each other through a national health information infrastructure. Since then, the road map has spurred national investments in electronic health records (EHRs) and motivated the integration of public surveillance data into analytic platforms for health situational awareness. More recently, the boom in consumer-oriented mobile applications and wireless medical sensing devices has opened up the possibility for mining new data flows directly from altruistic patients. In the broader public communication sphere, the ability to mine the digital traces of conversation on social media presents an opportunity to apply advanced machine learning algorithms as a way of tracking the diffusion of risk communication messages. In addition to utilizing big data for improving the scientific knowledge base in risk communication, there will be a need for health communication scientists and practitioners to work as part of interdisciplinary teams to improve the interfaces to these data for professionals and the public. Too much data, presented in disorganized ways, can lead to what some have referred to as “data smog.” Much work will be needed for understanding how to turn big data into knowledge, and just as important, how to turn data-informed knowledge into action.

Keywords: big data, data mining, learning healthcare system, evidence-based communication, communicating evidence, public health surveillance, predictive medicine, decision support

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