The future of big data could be good for your health

Exploiting today’s information mountain is not all about online commerce: one of Europe’s largest analytics centres is advancing the area of ‘connected health’

The world is in data overload. The information superhighway was built and we are now struggling to handle the big data mountain that it delivered.

But what started as a problem has now become an opportunity. Researchers and companies have realised that if you mine that data, you get useful information with an inherent value.

Finding novel ways to exploit this morass of big data is the challenge faced by the Insight Centre for Data Analytics. The centre, established in July 2013, was formed from five existing research centres that were set up several years ago.

Through a combination of good people, good planning and a degree of good luck, these five were all working on different aspects of big data, explains Prof Mark Ferguson, director-general of Science Foundation Ireland, the body that funded these centres.


So it was an easy decision to pull them together into a single research entity under one banner. Insight includes four university partners: University College Dublin, NUI Galway, University College Cork and Dublin City University. It attracted €58 million from Government coffers and another €30 million from industrial partners, making it the largest investment in a single research centre in the history of the State.

We swim through a deepening ocean of data, collected from cinemas, supermarkets, websites, social-media companies and businesses. The Internet of Things is attempting to join together your television, car, computer and just about anything else that can generate or use data.

“There is data everywhere. We have gone from a data-poor to a data-rich society and you need to analyse and create value out of it. It is a huge opportunity,” says Prof Ferguson.

At the Google level

Insight is now one of the largest data analytics centres in Europe. It involves the work of 350 researchers; with a team like that, “we are at the Google level” for data analytics, says Prof Barry Smyth, a director of Insight and investigator based at UCD’s school of computer science and informatics.

“It is not just big data for big companies; it is about empowering the citizen,” he says. “But individuals need to have the right to control the data and how it is used.”

Certainly mining this data helps online retail, advertising and commerce. But big data also holds much promise in “connected health”, he says. “This involves helping people to live healthier lives. This taps into wearable devices, activity monitors. They are counting steps, watching sleep patterns.”

Imagine a visit to the GP who has details from that day but also a year’s worth of stored activity data. The picture changes from a snapshot to a proper portrait and improves the doctor’s assessment.

Dr Brendan Marshall is a biomechanist at the Sports Surgery Clinic in Dublin, a company involved with Insight. He analyses how people move and how that relates to the injuries they develop.

“We can look at injury risk factors and are looking to Insight to analyse our data in novel ways,” he says. He can analyse single aspects of movement, but with data mining and mathematics from Insight he can get the big picture. “It is real-world stuff and it is happening now. It is not just for the future,” he says.

Prof Smyth gives another scenario of how connected health might work. You visit your physiotherapist, who gives you pages describing exercises. But what if, instead, you were given a computer game in which you were the main character, and the movements you make in the game equate to the movements necessary to achieve the goals of the exercises?

For years, scientists at DCU and elsewhere have been tracking movements using wearable sensors, GPS locators and accelerometers. Our rugby internationals are wired up with some of this technology, which also monitors physical performance and radios it back to a central system even as they play.

Mathematics is the tool used to extract useful information from raw data, says Prof Smyth. “We are using statistical techniques, machine learning and data mining. We start with numbers and then begin to see correlations and patterns,” he says. “It can help you make predictions and make better decisions.”

Big data is here to stay. “There were seven billion smart devices in the world last year, but this is expected to reach 14 billion this year,” says Oliver Daniels, chief executive of Insight. “This could hit 150 billion by 2020. There are issues around the privacy and ownership of that data. People are concerned about ‘big brother’ as well as big data,” he says.

Even so, Ireland will have to get ahead of the curve and make predictions about where big data will go in the future, he says. “Insight wants to help shape how we go forward and how our economy will benefit.”


Physiotherapy exercises after an injury can be boring, but what if the movements were part of a computer game where you were the main character? Or what if you had an on-screen avatar copying your movements and telling you whether you are exercising in the correct way?

Big data – along with advanced technology, and computers that can learn – is helping to make this a reality, says Prof Brian Caulfield, the dean of physiotherapy at University College Dublin and a researcher at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, and the Applied Research for Connected Health centre.

He is involved in technology- enhanced healthcare, and is trying to develop ways to integrate technology into advanced medical treatment..

“One of the big challenges of physio is, if you design an exercise programme for a patient, will they do the exercises and will they do them properly?” he says.

His team is using large stores of data associated with movement collected by wearable sensors. They can extract the optimal movements for a given injury and then integrate these movements into a computer game.

“The game gives them an incentive to participate and also helps them use the correct technique,” he says.

Another approach is to put sensors on to the person and then feed movement data into a computer that produces an avatar. The person can watch their movements as translated by the avatar, and if the movement is wrong the avatar can repeat the corrected exercise.

The Irish Times is a partner company in Insight

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.