Big data meets public health

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Science  28 Nov 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6213, pp. 1054-1055
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa2709

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In 1854, as cholera swept through London, John Snow, the father of modern epidemiology, painstakingly recorded the locations of affected homes. After long, laborious work, he implicated the Broad Street water pump as the source of the outbreak, even without knowing that a Vibrio organism caused cholera. “Today, Snow might have crunched Global Positioning System information and disease prevalence data, solving the problem within hours” (1). That is the potential impact of “Big Data” on the public's health. But the promise of Big Data is also accompanied by claims that “the scientific method itself is becoming obsolete” (2), as next-generation computers, such as IBM's Watson (3), sift through the digital world to provide predictive models based on massive information. Separating the true signal from the gigantic amount of noise is neither easy nor straightforward, but it is a challenge that must be tackled if information is ever to be translated into societal well-being.