The Power of Big Data


By Ed Pinches | Tuesday 22 May 2018

It’s the hot topic, the subject dominating much of this month’s news. Data. Your data. How it is used, how it is stored, who gets to access it, and for what purpose.

Earlier this month data was again the subject of conversation, this time among dementia researchers and experts in data science. They gathered in London for the third annual Dementias Platform UK Conference.

In a fascinating open-ended conversation, experts Prof Andrew Morris from Health Data Research UK, and Dr Rob Buckle from the UK Medical Research Council, discussed the role ‘big data’ needs to play in dementia research.

But what is ‘big data’, and why is it useful when studying dementia?

Putting it simply, big data is the collection of extremely large amounts of information. But it’s not the volume of data that’s particularly important; it’s how scientists use it. With big data, researchers can begin to reveal patterns and trends, which can lead to new discoveries or help generate further questions.

Data for dementia research

We can all make guesses and act on hunches, but the true challenge and art of science is to be able to measure constantly changing events to shed light on what is happening and why.

Dementia is a particularly complex scientific challenge as its caused by a number of different diseases that develop as a result of the interaction of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. It has always been difficult to gather, store and process information related to these diverse elements of our lives, but technical advances and ambitious research initiatives are now unlocking the potential of big data for dementia research.

A more traditional way of conducting this research is with a pre-defined group of people who you measure at one point in time and follow up later to highlight changes, before moving onto a different set of people to compare results and findings. These kinds of studies are still really important but they can be hard to do on a huge scale.

To accelerate progress in dementia research, scientists are turning to more ambitious approaches, using technology to compare and analyse many groups of people from different studies all at once. This means they are able to analyse huge collections of medical records, or other sources of relevant data, then summarise and effectively communicate this information to keep research moving forward!

Big data – a vessel for success

Big data has the potential to address some of the most fundamental questions that remain in dementia research and Sea Hero Quest is a great example of how millions of people can contribute to research from the comfort of their own sofas!

Over 3 million people have downloaded the app and have generated an amount of data that would have taken many decades to capture in a traditional research setting.

With users’ permission, researchers have been collecting anonymous information about how people play Sea Hero Quest. They’re beginning to use this information to answer important questions about human spatial navigation – how it changes between ages, between men and women, and between countries. It is exciting to see results continue to come out of such a rich source of data.

Ultimately researchers will use this data to identify subtle differences in navigation ability between people with and without dementia. This understanding will help researchers to develop tests that could help diagnose people with dementia earlier, and more accurately than is currently possible.

Keeping your data safe

Despite the enormous opportunities big data presents, people will have concerns about how their data is used in science. This is particularly true of health data from people who take part in research studies, or through the NHS by sharing information in our medical records.

We have recently blogged about this topic, to help you understand the role your patient data plays in research. It is essential that patient data is kept safe and secure to protect your sensitive, confidential information. We’re excited by the new videos produced by Understanding Patient Data that provide a closer look at how your health data is being used and the incredible impact it can have.

Where can big data take us?

Back at the Dementias Platform UK Conference, researchers got to grips with some of the big questions that surround the use of big data.

How safe is it to share big data? Will it be accessible for the public or only available to qualified scientists?

Would it be possible that, after all data has been carefully anonymised, it could be available for let’s say a teenager sat in her bedroom at home?  Would she be able spot something the scientists haven’t seen yet, or approach a problem from a whole new perspective?

And how do we make it appealing to those doing the research to share their data?

These are all important questions that the research community needs to start answering. If we can realise the potential of big data it will save lives. Do let us know your thoughts and join the conversation about the role data should play in dementia research.

  • Join us on Facebook and Twitter and share videos from Understanding Patient Data and help us spread the word that data can save lives.
  • Are you interested in taking part in dementia research? Find out more about Join Dementia Research – a national initiative to enable you to take part in studies in your area.

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About the author

Ed Pinches

Team: Science news