Data usage and health

This is a reflective blog post taking into consideration what I have learnt during the first two weeks of my full time MA course Library Science. What I have found most interesting is the way in which data has shaped our lives and potentially our futures, especially in relation to our mental and physical health. 

Everything in our society is becoming reliant on individual data, from online banking to egovernment. Our reliance, as a society, on data is becoming more prevalent in how we think of ourselves within society, in his 2011 TED talk, Luciano Floridi states “we are interconnected information organisms”(Inforgs). Floridi describes a transformation; where information has become our environment (the Infosphere).  This transition into the Infosphere re-examines our relationship with health, both our physical and mental ailments, and how data can help us understand the most effective treatments to the individual.  Floridi examines this transition into ehealth, looking into “the democratisation of health information”, and how through using data we can construct a patient orientated health system. 

In her BBC Four Documentary Hannah Fry (“The Joys of Data”) experiences a live-in-data house, an experiment run by the University of Bristol, designed to use machine learning to “monitor . . . the data of normal behaviour”. By using a wearable the computer is able to track Hannah’s movements from going upstairs to downstairs, whether she was crawling on the floor, and what time she went to sleep. The experiment’s most integral aim was to use this data to help those with physical ill-health, so through machine learning the team can catalogue the data from Hannah’s evening. With the possibility to use machine learning to spot patterns of ill-health among vulnerable groups.  

Another example of how data can potentially be used to help understand mental illnesses and prescribed medications, is Dr Claire Gillian’s  new project that will be groundbreaking for new patients about to start antidepressants. By creating an algorithm Dr Gillian will be able to estimate which certain characteristics react and respond to specific treatments. Through the use of data and cognitive tests participants will share online, Dr. Gillian will be able to spot patterns from the data given and be able to “predict” which antidepressants work best for a participant. This experiment is a potential breakthrough in the field of  mental health as only “40% of patients respond to the first treatment they get”. This usage of data could be revolutionary in helping the participants find the treatment they need within the first few months of a diagnosis. This project has the possibility to redefine how patients are prescribed antidepressants, and has the capacity to use data to track the progress of the prescribed medications to see how well people are reacting to algorithmic prescriptions. 

So what does this mean for the future? 

It is clear the link between data and health is potentially unlimited, regarding patients diagnosi, prescriptions and treatments; through using data and machine learning to spot patterns of disease, mental illness, and other ailments of the body. However, transparency of how this data is used and examined, by health services, is detrimental to us as Inforgs, for as Floridi states it “touches the nerve of what it means to be human”. (The Joys of Data) 


Luciano Floridi, TEDxMaastricht, 2011,

“Predicting the effectiveness of antidepressants” –

“What big data can do for mental health treatments”

Hannah Fry, “The Joys of Data”, BBC Four Documentary

3 replies on “Data usage and health”

Great post, and a really interesting look at how using data could potentially improve our lives by being able to better tailor medical treatments to the individual.
It will be interesting to see the results of experiments such as this and whether the data can in fact be effectively utilised.
Just one thing, would you be able to clarify what you mean in the last sentence? I wasn’t able to fully follow it, though I do still need to catch up on The Joys of Data doc.


I like how positive this blog entry is! I usually get pessimistic when thinking about being affected by the infosphere, so this reminds me again of people that use algorithms to help others in need.


Very interesting read. It’s encouraging to see how AI is being used to aid with physical and mental health. With everything that’s happening in the world right now I’m sure health care workers would appreciate every bit of help they can get. I know that many people on antidepressants have to try various strains (often with many negative side effects) before they find the right one, it’s nice to know that this time and energy could be saved one day.

As for what Floridi said, it may ‘touch the nerve of what it means to be human’, but perhaps it could also mean that we may well evolve beyond our current mental and physical struggles to discover realms beyond the ‘humaness’ that we currently understand. Who knows?!


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