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January 1, 2013

2012 Word of the Year: Big Data

Geoffrey Nunberg, a noted linguist and professor at UC Berkeley's School of Information, recently offered his thoughts on the word of the year in the weekly Q&A column at BillMoyers.com. I was struck that he opted for "Big Data" as the word rather than the choices that first came to my mind like Hurricane Sandy, "47 percent", fiscal cliff, self-deportation or 1%'ers. His word choice speaks to important themes in public health, like syndromic surveillance and using data in ways that mobilize communities to take actions promoting and protecting health.

Today's information utilities (e.g., Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, the list goes on) may offer new sources of information that can inform public health policy and even support community action in ways we could not have dreamed of a few years ago. Big data means analytics. Analytics means someone has information upon which inferences, correct or incorrect, are made and actions are taken commensurate with what they learn. This is likely the era of "new epidemiology."

The presidential election of 2012 proved beyond a doubt that big data makes a difference. The Obama campaign made powerful use of data mining with their social networks to understand what was moving voters and how to micro-target specific messages to specific sub-populations. The public health community has a special and urgent need to understand these phenomena and to do what we can to leverage big data analytical power for purposes that speak to the broader public good. 

 

David A. Ross, ScD

President/CEO of the Task Force for Global Health, former director of PHII