So What Do We Do With All This Data?

Scientists think all the personal information now being shared on social networks or collected by sensors could help them predict the future

The BodyMedia Armband is yet another tool to help you track your health with personalized data. Feedloader (Clickability)

Someday, probably sooner than we think, much of our lives will be recorded by sensors. Whether it’s armbands tracking our heartbeats or dashboards monitoring our driving or smart phones pinpointing where we are at all times, we, as defined by our preferences and habits, are becoming part of the staggering swirl of data already out there in cyberspace.

With so much personal information now in play, a lot of people are nervous about who owns it and what they’ll do with it. As they should be. But there’s also the question of how to make sense of it all. Can all this seemingly random data be reconfigured into patterns that not only do the obvious–allow businesses to zero in on customers–but also help deal with ridiculously complex matters, such as slashing health care costs or forecasting the stock market?

Consider the possibilities in health care. In the past, anyone analyzing who gets ill and why had to rely on data skewed heavily toward sick people–statistics from hospitals, info from doctors. But now, with more and more healthy people collecting daily stats on everything from their blood pressure to their calorie consumption to how many hours of REM sleep they get a night, there’s potentially a  trove of new health data that could reshape what experts analyze. As Shamus Husheer, CEO of the British firm Cambridge Temperature Concepts, told the Wall Street Journal,You can compare sleep patterns from normal people with, say, pain sufferers. If you don’t know what normal sleep looks like, how do you tease out the data?”

In Austin, Texas, Seton Health Care is using Watson–that’s right, the IBM supercomputer that humiliated its human competitors on “Jeopardy!” last year–to comb through tons of patient information with the goal of helping hospitals identify behavior that drives up costs.  For instance, Watson is now focusing on patients with congestive heart failure, but it’s looking at much more than what appears on patients’ charts, such as doctors’ notes. And it’s finding that factors that wouldn’t ordinarily show up in medical analysis–like patients not having transportation to get to a doctor for checkups–can be a big reason for repeat trips to the ER, which of course, is the sort of thing that sends health care costs through the roof.

Twitter tells all

Now that we have both tools to crunch so much data and so much data to crunch, it makes finding patterns that predict the future less daunting.  “We’re finally in a position where people volunteer information about their specific activities, often their location, who they’re with, what they’re doing, how they feel about what they’re doing, what they’re talking about,” Indiana University professor Johan Bollen told the Boston Globe. ”We’ve never had data like that before, at least not at that level of granularity.”

There are outfits that analyze Twitter traffic for financial services companies and even a hedge fund in London that uses a secret Twitter-based formula to make investment decisions.

Bollen is such a believer that he says he’s found a correlation between the level of anxiety expressed on Twitter and the performance of the stock market. Seriously. Based on his analysis, when there’s a high level of anxiety of Twitter, three days later, the stock market goes down.

So remember, keep your tweets sweet.

We’ll be watching you

Here are just a few of the new ways sensors are tapping into our daily lives:

Video bonus: Check out how OmniTouch can turn your hand, or any other flat surface, into a touch screen.

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