A few weeks ago, the Digital Epidemiology Lab started at Campus Biotech in Geneva. The lab, which I am heading, is part of EPFL, and is physically located within the Global Health Institute of the University of Geneva.
Digital epidemiology is a newly emerging field that uses novel, digital data streams to improve epidemiology. Data sources include - but are not limited to - social media, wireless sensors, and mobile phones. These sources have a number of advantages over traditional epidemiological sources. First, there is the all but certain prediction that by 2020, more than 5 billion people will have a smartphone and access to the Internet. In other words, epidemiological data can be collected from populations that have been traditionally hard-to-reach because they did not have general access to health care systems. Second, these data sources are able to capture a much richer picture of the health and disease status of individuals, communities, and populations. Traditional epidemiological systems mainly work with data sources collected via doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, and thus are generally limited to notifiable diseases. In other words, traditional epidemiology easily misses out on the vast majority of the information that people generate about their health. Third, because the data come from online sources, they are often analyzable in real time, providing a key speed advantage which can be crucial in many epidemiological situations.
While these opportunities are huge, the challenges are of equal dimension. The privacy issues are complex to say the least. Because many of the data sources are of corporate nature - social media services, telecommunication providers, etc. - access to the data can be difficult. Last but not least, given the size of this big data flow, the analytical challenges are often only manageable with very advanced computer science methods, and the corresponding computational infrastructure.
For these reasons, it makes perfect sense for a technical institution like EPFL to build expertise in this domain. It also makes perfect sense to grow this expertise within a setting that lives and breathes global health: Geneva, the world’s hub for global health. But the digitization of health is occurring rapidly, and software is not only eating the world, it also has little respect for tradition. Geneva and its health organizations must not just be on board, but become a leader in the digital health revolution in order to remain the global health hub of the 21st century.
Written by Marcel Salathé for the GHP Newsletter
Associate Professor, EPFL
Head, Laboratory of Digital Epidemiology