Stephen Baker

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How much data can Asthma inhalers provide?

May 11, 2011Hop Skip Go

It seems like the perfect combination for asthma research: inhalers equipped with GPS, so that each use of the medication comes with a time and place tag. Teradata's Paul Barsch  cites an Economist article about Asthmopolis, the new tool to track asthma.

The idea is that people can map their own patterns, and come to understand, and hopefully avoid, places and conditions that provoke asthma attacks. And researchers, studying the data from thousands of users, might learn even more.

That's where other variables come in. The GPS data may show that 20 users in Youngstown, Ohio, suffer exacerbations between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night. But how many of them are just traveling through Youngstown in their car? Should they count? And how many of them are spending the evening in close quarters with their cats or dogs? What did people eat? Since each of us is a complex system, the challenge with medical monitoring is to pick up as much detail of the entire life as possible.

The key--at least until English-savvy machines like Watson are on the case--is to get valuable diary data into formats machines can process. Then systems like Asthmopolis could really make a difference, both for individuals and society at large. The other key, as Barsch notes, is to do this in a way that protects people's privacy. None of the medical monitoring will work without that.

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