Big Data may be invasive but it will keep us in rude health

Last updated: February 21, 2014 7:00 pm

Big Data may be invasive but it will keep us in rude health

By Janan Ganesh

Privacy fears that centre on the health service database are overblown

The life savers of the future will possess an intelligent layman’s grasp of medicine and no more. They will be strangers to the operating theatre and the research laboratory. The patients touched by their work will never know them. And if they have Dr as a prefix to their name, it will denote a PhD in information science or mathematics. “My son the statistician,” parents will boast.

Healthcare is in the early throes of a reformation. As the quantity of data we generate expands by orders of magnitude every few months – get used to hearing about terabytes, petabytes and other heroic units of measurement – along with the computational power to store it all, health authorities can gather more information about their patient populations in a single year than has been open to them in all history.

Almost everything that determines our health, from our genetic coding to our retail habits, is becoming knowable. With data analysis, we can spot patterns of disease, gauge the efficacy of treatments and draw links between causes and symptoms, all in granular detail. The sample size will no longer be experimental groups of hundreds. It will be entire nations.

America is at the thrusting edge, predictably enough. By studying search patterns, Google was able to predict outbreaks of influenza several days before they began to show up in hospital admission figures – and this is a hopelessly jejune innovation compared with what is possible. Harvard University’s School of Public Health is letting data inform more and more of its teaching and research; a master’s in computational biology and quantitative genetics starts soon.

Britain, however, could turn out to be the real crucible for this new science of science. It has vaults of data going back decades. It can centralise and standardise information, a rare perk of a command and control system. And vitally, it has a pragmatic take on privacy. This is the country of inescapable closed-circuit television and Tesco’s Clubcard – the “first example ofBig Data”, according to Sir Terry Leahy, the supermarket’s former boss. If their lives can be made safer or easier, and the intrusion is not palpable, Britons are usually happy to leave their elites to their own liberal anguish.

It would be tragic, and very silly, if this pragmatism succumbed to the kind of Big Data panic left behind by revelations of spying and surveillance over the past year. Last week, the National Health Service postponed the launch of, a central stash of records detailing patient experiences at the hands of hospitals and general practitioners. Researchers could use this mighty resource to assess the performance of treatments and scrutinise providers. The records will be anonymised, a safeguard to be eased only in a crisis with the approval of the health secretary, and patients can opt out. But objections from clinicians and civil libertarians set the project back and, in a postmodern twist, the NHS will now spend six months informing the public of their rights – an information campaign about information.

Liberals are not imagining things when they say the Age of Data has brought shocking upheaval. The process of acquiring knowledge has been turned on its head within a few years. We used to identify a problem to solve and then cobble together the relevant data. We now start off with unfathomable masses of data and try to spot things in them, which is where those number-crunching analysts come in. Although this has less to do with sinister government than with the impersonal growth of information in a world where almost everything we do leaves a digital imprint, it has dark implications for privacy.

But it also has some audacious, life-enhancing implications. Imagining the outer limits of data’s potential is barely within our ken. We think of medical progress as something that happens in laboratories, where eureka moments take place and blockbuster drugs are concocted. But having plucked the low-hanging fruit, pharmaceuticals companiesare finding it uneconomic to sink research budgets into experiments that mostly go nowhere. The future of healthcare might not lie in spectacular discoveries but in the systematic deployment of existing data, from humdrum rates of incidence and admission to the genomic patterns that make up our very selves. It can help us anticipate health problems before they manifest, treat them with bespoke care and reduce waste and other irrationalities.

And that is just the supply side. Babies born today might, as adults, have individual health profiles setting out their genetic susceptibility to various illnesses, known only to themselves and their doctors. They might have a personal state-funded budget to spend on healthcare providers of their choosing, as well as information on the quality and cost of the options on offer, hospital by hospital, GP by GP, treatment by treatment. Institutional disclosure and accountability would limit their chances of enduring the sort of neglect exposed in corners of the health service in recent years. They would not have to rely on whistleblowers.

A kind of libertarian excitability is the chronic condition of Britain’s elites. Home secretaries are always “draconian”, counterterror laws are always the first steps on a “slippery slope”. Spoilt for cultural references – 1984V for VendettaA Clockwork Orange – they conjure dystopias of the deep state and the abolition of privacy. A century ago, a certain kind of bien pensant was waiting for the working classes to revolt against capitalism. They are now impatient for a popular reaction against Big Data. But what about the opposite dystopia? Powerless patients forced to take what they are given by a state that is ignorant of what works best. The tyranny of not knowing.

Land was the central economic asset until the industrial revolution. Labour took over in the 19th century and gave way to capital in the 20th. Economic theory offers something as nebulous as “enterprise” as the fourth factor of production but, in truth, data are the propelling energy of our age. The nexus between quantitative science and medical science can save and improve lives by the million, if liberalism does not become the new Luddism.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: