The role of Big Data in healthcare
We generate data about ourselves all the time, the acquisition and interpretation of which is big business. In many cases, this data may be fairly trivial or inconsequential. In others, this may be the most private and confidential data of all - about our health, for example. Regardless of what type it falls under, there are businesses out there that will want it.
The question of data in healthcare is timely considering the UK’s exit from the European Union, and the potential for healthcare data to be used as a bargaining chip in future trade deals with the United States and others.
The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is one of the oldest and most established public healthcare systems in the world. Its practice of tying data to an individual NHS number means its data provides a broader account of patients’ health, and with the NHS increasingly digitising old records, a chronologically longer one too. EY has estimated the data to be worth almost £10bn.
The potential value of that data led to raised eyebrows when, in December 2019, the UK government gave Amazon unfettered access to non-patient data for free, with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant in turn providing health information via voice search. Elsewhere, other big tech firms are interested in acquiring medical data, with Google doing a deal with Ascension, a company that runs 2,600 hospitals in the US, which gave it access to patient data.
Of course, such data is not purely useful to American tech giants, with the NHS and other health bodies themselves able to capitalise upon it. One possible avenue of exploration lies in opening up such data sets to AI. Matthew Gould, the CEO of NHSX, the NHS’s digital transformation arm, wrote in a recent blog post: “Artificial Intelligence (AI) holds enormous potential for the NHS, if we can use it right. It can reduce the burden on the system by taking on the tasks that can be converted into an algorithm.
Many of these are in areas of greatest pressure, like radiography and pathology. It could improve patient outcomes, and increase productivity across the system, freeing up clinicians’ time so they can focus on the parts of the job where they add the most value.”
Google’s aforementioned interest in health data led to its acquisition of MedTech wearables firm Fitbit. Accordingly, we’ve seen a proliferation of wearable devices which give users the ability to track elements of their fitness.
Whether that’s smartwatches that can track the distance you’ve run or portable heart monitoring devices, the data they generate is not purely useful to the end-user, with the likes of Google Fit and Apple Health all sharing data by default. This mutual model of data generation and consumption is big business. Just look at the price Google paid for Fitbit: $2.1bn.
One fundamental question remains with this proliferation of highly sensitive and highly valuable data: its security. Tim Brown, VP of Security at infrastructure management software firm SolarWinds, says that the healthcare industry faces additional risk owing to two factors. “First, the information they have stored on patients is extremely valuable and can be used for identity and insurance fraud.
The second is their core mission, and the high visibility of that mission—the health and safety of people—leads bad actors to believe the healthcare sector is more willing to pay a ransom when lives could be at risk.”
The coming year will see such risks amplified due to the industry’s reputation. “In 2020, the healthcare sector will witness an increased number of sophisticated attacks,” Brown says. “These will be targeted and well-coordinated; the bad guys will focus on attacking the overall environment, not just individuals. The healthcare sector has shown in the past that they will pay, which makes them a bigger target.”
The answer partly lies, Brown says, in a focus on ‘cyber hygiene’ across the healthcare sector. “This includes endpoint protection, access control, network segmentation and an aggressive patch program. They need to realise they are a more attractive target for attack and take precautions to not become a victim of opportunity.
Once good cyber hygiene is in place, they should be proactive in testing the environment and modelling cyber outbreaks. Just like a common cold or virus, the outbreak needs to be contained and limited to the smallest number possible.”
Assuming such security challenges can be overcome, medical data represents a potent force in the ongoing evolution of healthcare worldwide. While there are dangers of misuse, data, when used correctly, can demonstrably improve people’s lives, whether that’s machines learning from existing images of conditions to make diagnoses or the modelling of diseases to contain their spread.
SAS: Improving the British Army’s decision making with data
SAS’ long-standing relationship with the British Army is built on mutual respect and grounded by a reciprocal understanding of each others’ capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Roderick Crawford, VP and Country GM for SAS UKI, states that the company’s thorough grasp of the defence sector makes it an ideal partner for the Army as it undergoes its own digital transformation.
“Major General Jon Cole told us that he wanted to enable better, faster decision-making in order to improve operational efficiency,” he explains. Therefore, SAS’ task was to help the British Army realise the “significant potential” of data through the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to automate tasks and conduct complex analysis.
In 2020, the Army invested in the SAS ‘Viya platform’ as an overture to embarking on its new digital roadmap. The goal was to deliver a new way of working that enabled agility, flexibility, faster deployment, and reduced risk and cost: “SAS put a commercial framework in place to free the Army of limits in terms of their access to our tech capabilities.”
Doing so was important not just in terms of facilitating faster innovation but also, in Crawford’s words, to “connect the unconnected.” This means structuring data in a simultaneously secure and accessible manner for all skill levels, from analysts to data engineers and military commanders. The result is that analytics and decision-making that drives innovation and increases collaboration.
Crawford also highlights the importance of the SAS platform’s open nature, “General Cole was very clear that the Army wanted a way to work with other data and analytics tools such as Python. We allow them to do that, but with improved governance and faster delivery capabilities.”
SAS realises that collaboration is at the heart of a strong partnership and has been closely developing a long-term roadmap with the Army. “Although we're separate organisations, we come together to work effectively as one,” says Crawford. “Companies usually find it very easy to partner with SAS because we're a very open, honest, and people-based business by nature.”
With digital technology itself changing with great regularity, it’s safe to imagine that SAS’ own relationship with the Army will become even closer and more diverse. As SAS assists it in enhancing its operational readiness and providing its commanders with a secure view of key data points, Crawford is certain that the company will have a continually valuable role to play.
“As warfare moves into what we might call ‘the grey-zone’, the need to understand, decide, and act on complex information streams and diverse sources has never been more important. AI, computer vision and natural language processing are technologies that we hope to exploit over the next three to five years in conjunction with the Army.”
Fundamentally, data analytics is a tool for gaining valuable insights and expediting the delivery of outcomes. The goal of the two parties’ partnership, concludes Crawford, will be to reach the point where both access to data and decision-making can be performed qualitatively and in real-time.
“SAS is absolutely delighted to have this relationship with the British Army, and across the MOD. It’s a great privilege to be part of the armed forces covenant.”