It’s not just about big data: here’s why small data matters to your health

Big data may be a rising star in health care but small data can play a powerful role, too. At the TEDMED conference on Wednesday, Deborah Estrin, a computer science professor at New York City’s Cornell Tech, gave a compelling case for how your “digital exhaust,” including location data, searches and social media posts, could provide a valuable window into your wellbeing.

“We’re continuously generating digital breadcrumbs from the services we interact with,” she said. But “there are no existing vehicles that package that data about me in a format that’s useful for me and that make it accessible to me. [And] there should be because there’s a lot that I can learn about my personal health from my digital behavior.”

Search engines, social networks and mobile carriers capture and analyze that data to serve up advertising, improve services and provide personalization. But delivered to the user, Estrin said, that data could generate a “digital social pulse” for tracking health in more implicit ways than Fitbits (see disclosure), Nike Fuelbands (s NKE) and other quantified self-type devices.

For example, she said, an app could process data from a mobile carrier to determine whether new supplements for early-stage arthritis are actually helping a patient. If the patient is checking her phone earlier in the morning and moving around more frequently, that could indicate that the medicine its doing its job.

Service providers may balk at the prospect of releasing their troves of user activity data – and Estrin acknowledged that they would likely worry about PR headaches and privacy issues. But not only should enhanced transparency provide the foundation for a strong privacy policy, she argued that access to their data would make smartphones and data services even more valuable to customers.

Startups like Personal and the Locker Project have started building tools that help people manage and use their personal information. And uses sensor data from mobile phones and other devices to identify signals of behavior change to understand users’ mental and physical health.

But Estrin wants to encourage an entire ecosystem of apps. And, along with colleagues at the mobile health non-profit OpenM Health and Cornell Tech, she’s beginning to build prototypes that demonstrate the benefits of using small data for personal health, as well as create the architecture for service providers, app developers and others to create additional small data health apps and algorithms. (You can learn more about Cornell’s small data initiative here.)

“We need an open architecture, so that a rich market of apps and services can grow up around that data just like http created the World Wide Web and led to the rich array of internet services,” she said.

Image by Digital Storm via Shutterstock.

Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.