Apple and IBM say big data will save lives

An Apple (and IBM) each day may keep you healthy

Apple and IBM have reached a new agreement to use big data analytics to turn digital health into so much more than a step counter – the conjunction between these and others in the healthcare space will impact every part of health provision.

Think on it like a car -- your Ford Fusion already sends 250GB of data back to Ford, whose analytics systems will then let you know if something is wrong (or going wrong) with your car. Now imagine if sensors on your iPhone, smartwatch or clothing did the same thing, gathering health data to share with your medical analytics provider, who will tell you if something is wrong, or about to be.

This isn’t far-fetched. The data already exists (the quantity of health-related data is expected to “double every 73 days by 2020,” according to the University of Iowa); the challenge is making useful insights from this information, particularly with 80% of this gathered data still unstructured at present.

The size of the health data mountain demands powerful big data analytics systems capable of crunching it, while the realization of useful insights demands the kind of deep learning intelligence IBM’s Watson provides -- when it isn’t winning Jeopardy. The new Apple deal is an important component of IBM’s mission to launch global health analytics cloud, Watson Health, as it enables even more accurate data collection through ResearchKit.

Inevitably, all partners will find ways to prove such data gathering can provide useful insights to protect public health – they need this proof to offer such services in the public domain, beyond research. Health regulators will not permit such services until they can prove their effectiveness.

Here are some of the many ways in which big data and connected devices can save or improve lives and healthcare:


Patients with life-threatening conditions who currently require near constant care would be empowered to live a more independent life using sensors connected to data analytics in the cloud to monitor their condition as they go about their day. Some 4.9 million patients worldwide will use remote monitoring devices by 2016, IBM said.

The potential here is that the first time a patient with a heart problem may discover they are in danger of an attack would be when their health monitoring system detects early warning signs and sends help to them, even before they know they need it. Big data analysis can also help recognize instances of medical incompetence, said NHS England’s Tim Kelsey – 16,000 hospitals already gather patient data.


Mexico used big data analysis of call records during the H1N1 outbreak of 2009 to figure out infection clusters. In the U.S., the Hedonometer project monitors and scores numerous Twitter feeds to gauge levels of happiness and health. People living in cities with obesity problems Tweet words like ‘heartburn’ and ‘starving’ more often, for example. Health officials use insights like these to help deliver effective health and awareness campaigns. Big data analytics also played a part in fighting the Ebola outbreak last year.


Insurers love big data. Not only can they use to it to link your insurance premiums to your lifestyle habits, but they can offer these insights to enterprise clients. It’s possible enterprises that deploy health sensors across their employees may save money on health insurance costs in direct proportion to how healthy they convince employees to become. Suddenly, it makes sense for your boss to buy you an Apple Watch as it cuts their health insurance costs. It also makes sense they let you have regular breaks.

The Patient IO platform recently got extended with tools enterprises can use to improve employee health. Apple and IBM’s big entry into the digital health space will help propel the industry “to the next, integrated level, via leadership of a major (biggest?) consumer company,” said international digital health expert, Paul Sonnier. The whole deal also adds context to Apple’s recent purchase of Foundation DB.

Big data is a big deal, and connected intelligence means your Apple Watch has as big a part to play as Watson – together these technologies can impact the planet. You can expect much more on Apple’s journey to digital health at WWDC 2015, which begins on June 8.

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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