Big data is a big concept. But what is it really? As wearables and other health technologies become common, we are constantly collecting data about how we live, what we do, and who we are. In a recent interview, Julie Potyraj, community manager for MPH@GW, sat down with Sam Hanna, program director of George Washington University’s online master’s degree in health informatics program, to discuss how the Internet of Things (IoT) contributes to big data and how that data can be used:
Julie Potyraj: There seems to be a lot of different definitions or understandings of the term "Internet of Things." From your perspective, what are the “things” that we’re talking about?
Sam Hanna: Well, the Internet of Things is something we’ve had for a long time. Every time we have a new technology, we’re adding input points that generate data and give us more information.
So it’s a combination of all of these devices. They tend to be physical devices, everything from your smartphone, to your Fitbit, to your refrigerator, to your Nest thermostat, to your router, to all of these siloed individual devices that are connected to you in some way or fashion.
Those are the physical devices. That’s all great, but what’s better is the information. These devices generate information about us and where we live and how we function. That’s the Internet of Everything that we deal and interact with.
JP: Where is this data and who owns it?
SH: It’s everywhere. If you take your smartphone, for example, the data there is housed by the carriers, it’s housed by your device manufacturer, it’s housed on various apps that you use. All of this information is generated and housed in so many different places. There’s no centralized location.
So obviously having things decentralized makes it less efficient in some cases, especially when there are no standardized protocols. That’s something that we need to develop over the next few years to make sure that these devices can talk to each other and that the information is transacted and transferred seamlessly between them.
JP: So it’s not only creating more data, it’s figuring out how that data can work together to create a whole picture of a person.
SH: Exactly, and just to give you a sense of the big picture here, and I don’t recall where I read this, but it’s estimated that there will be 50 billion connected devices by 2020. So we’re going to have enormous amounts of data, but as I mentioned, it doesn’t tell you anything about the customer until you wrap the data around the person. Having the person at the center of the Internet of Things makes it a lot more meaningful.
JP: Right, so when we hear about big data, is the Internet of Things one of the contributing mechanisms for creating this big data?
SH: Yes. All of the devices, wearables, everything we have and are going to have, is what’s going to contribute to this massive onslaught of data about us, about our lives, about what we do, and where we go.
If you think about it from a healthcare perspective, the amount of data that we have is helpful right now. It gives us the ability to provide good healthcare. But good healthcare is not good enough in the future because a lot of the data about us as individuals fits outside of the hospital. When we go to a hospital or we go to any healthcare provider, we may have our medical data on electronic medical records, but the EMR is just one data warehouse that’s housing that data. Right now there’s no connectivity to whatever else we do in our lives outside of the hospital.
So imagine if we can connect all of the devices and have the data in one place to give us a better holistic picture about you or me when we go to request and seek healthcare.
JP: Who would be responsible for connecting these devices? How do you see the future of this connectivity?
SH: Well, that’s the big question. There are some fundamental differences around the thought of this because there is no standard and everybody is creating something following their own protocol. From a policy perspective, policy has lagged behind because the technology is moving so fast. New companies, technologies, devices, and apps are coming on all the time. Some may succeed and some may fizzle out, so we are at the infancy stage of trying to capture the much needed information from all the data.
The Internet of Things concept is starting to mature, but the use and usability of the information generated by the Internet of Things is the new frontier. What we do with this and how we us it for the benefit of society is the opportunity.
JP: What do you think is a realistic future for the Internet of Things and for improving patient outcomes?
SH: I think we need to standardize. We need to have an ability for all of these devices to talk to each other in a private and secure and protected way. We value our privacy and security, especially when it comes to all our medical information. So for that to really take hold, we need to have the policy and the practice come together in an expeditious manner to facilitate that. Currently, that is not the case. Right now the technology is moving too fast and the policy has not been able to keep up with it.