Big Data for a Big Problem: Putting Data To Work To Tackle Obesity

In recent decades, three things have grown at an astonishing rate:

  1. The obesity rate in our population,
  2. Health care costs, and
  3. The availability of health-related public-use data sets.

The first two have always been close associates. It’s time we find innovative ways to bring the third along.

That’s why we, together with HHS and the Health Data Consortium, have developed the Obesity Data Challenge: a sustained effort to engage the analytical and technological expertise of those outside of public health and health care.

If you are a data scientist, policy wonk, innovator, or hacker-at-large looking for a critical health problem to address, look no further.

The obesity epidemic has far-reaching consequences: it is a primary driver of continually climbing health care costs, it foreshadows an unhealthier and costlier workforce that will burden global economic competitiveness, and it is reversing more than a century of progress in which each generation lived longer and healthier lives than the one before it.

Obesity has multiple causes and requires complex solutions, demanding the full measure of innovation and creativity that data can bring to bear.

We have seen early signs that policies and programs can have an impact, but there is much work to be done to tackle obesity in every community. Public health officials, schools, health care providers, and families share responsibility in the fight against obesity. But they also share a critical limitation – the lack of access to actionable data to inform their work.

Volumes of data exist, but far too often they aren’t put to use for the benefit of individual patients or their communities – or, just as commonly, data are used selectively, without the full power that comes from combining data from multiple sources. Many are unaware that relevant data even exists, and few have the capability to combine or visualize data in sophisticated ways. With communities coming together to address obesity as a critical issue, it’s time to provide better tools that put these data to work.

To be clear, this isn’t just about data derived from individual encounters that patients have with health care providers, and it isn’t just about solutions based in clinical settings. We need to take a broader approach towards public health data to include:

  • Commercial and consumer data on access to healthy foods;
  • Data on the density of fast food outlets, parks, bike trails, and other factors that define the environment in which people live;
  • Data about zoning and community design; and
  • Data on public health programs in schools, worksites, and other community resources.

Geographically oriented data from consumers and individuals – including from personal fitness apps – may also be relevant and available, now or in the future. Combined in creative ways, these data may reveal patterns and solutions that help target interventions and lead to new solutions.

Health systems, public health officials, and community organizations can put these data to use in developing customized, effective obesity prevention programs and policies including:

  • Improving clinical care and community referrals by making information available to clinicians about the obesity prevention resources available in communities in which their patients live
  • Supporting community planning efforts to improve access to healthier foods and exercise opportunities in high-obesity prevalence neighborhoods
  • Developing obesity prevention resources tools for schools, clinicians, and others working in the community
  • Helping hospitals and health systems better understand their patient population so that they can customize screening and intervention programs
  • Helping schools, businesses, and others understand the context in which their students and workers live in order to help design better wellness interventions that take advantage of community resources
  • Targeting public policy and community advocacy to areas of greatest need and potential impact
  • Prioritizing interventions by better targeting neighborhoods at high risk

We hope that the Obesity Data Challenge will help amplify the impact of one or many of these proven prevention programs or policies. We need your help to make it easier for all stakeholders in this challenging health issue to access and use the data that are out there.

Innovators in the U.S. and England can use open data sets to develop or enhance an application, tool, digital service, or other useful product. Participants can use and combine data to develop new data visualization tools to give communities, local health officials, patients, and healthcare practitioners new means to improve population health.

This challenge closely aligns with the de Beaumont Foundation’s mission to transform public health in the United States by improving the effectiveness and capacity of local and state health departments. We encourage innovation and creativity to tackle the major challenges facing public health. Furthermore, the Foundation recognizes the need for collaboration, cooperation, and sharing of information between health systems, local health officials, and community leaders in order to achieve success and sustainability.

We believe communities will welcome the tools these Obesity Data Challenge participants imagine and build. This challenge presents a unique opportunity to demonstrate that health-related data applications can move outside the health care system. The resulting innovations will also help facilitate partnerships between health care providers and those who focus on the health of communities in which their patients live.

We are pleased to join with our colleagues at HHS and HDC to help unleash the power of data to help solve this national problem.

Edward L. Hunter is President and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation.