Deborah Estrin: Small Data Expert and Co-Founder of Open mHealth

Deborah Estrin: Small Data Expert and Co-Founder of Open mHealth

Deborah Estrin:
Small Data Expert and Co-Founder of Open mHealth

How many times have you gone to the doctor’s office and been asked, ‘How are you doing?’ or ‘How were you feeling this week?’ Unless you keep a detailed record of your actions and symptoms everyday, you probably don’t have a well-informed answer. This is one problem that Deborah Estrin, professor of computer science at Cornell Tech and co-founder of Open mHealth, is out to solve! By capturing and sharing the digital traces we leave behind everyday as we use wearable technology and computing devices, Estrin believes that we can unlock better healthcare experiences. The more doctors know about our daily activities, as tracked by our mobile devices and digital traces and then shared with medical providers, the more personalized our healthcare can be.

Estrin’s research interests are at the intersection of user-centric applications, using sensors to collect and analyze data, and immersive personalization methods.  Estrin has been involved with the development and use of the Internet from its early days: As an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California, she got involved involved with Internet protocol design (the way that data is sent from one computer to another). She later was involved with the Information Sciences Institute, which built the Domain Name System and the Request for Comments (RFC) process, the foundation of the modern Internet. In the 1990s, she was selected as a member of DARPA’s Information Science and Technology Group, a group of the best scientists and engineers in computer science who explore new research directions.

Read on to learn more about Deborah Estrin and how small data could change your doctor visits.

A Background in Data and Sensors

Estrin grew up in a home where education and computer science knowledge were important family values: Her parents both had PhDs in electrical engineering and helped build the first computer in Israel, the WEIZAC, in 1954. Both of her parents were also feminists who encouraged their daughters to become excellent at whatever they pursued. Estrin feels that her family background prepared her to help solve problems with technology: “I grew up surrounded by the ideals of pursuing science and engineering as a stimulating and creative way to have a positive impact on the world.” In school, Estrin focused on science and technology and eventually earned her PhD in Computer Science from MIT. 

Estrin went on to pioneer the field of wireless sensing, in which systems collect and analyze real-time data about the physical world. As a faculty member at UCLA, Estrin founded the NSF Science and Technology Center for Embedded Network Sensing. There are many applications of wireless sensing–for example, distributed sensors that can monitor the environment in a complex ecosystem like a rainforest, and embedded sensors in an airplane that can detect structural problems. 

Estrin’s most recent research focuses on how collecting and analyzing data can help improve healthcare, through actionable insights generated using small data. Real-time data that can help clinicians better serve patients is now easy to capture–with a device as common as a mobile phone.

Small Data and Your Health

Much of Estrin’s research at Cornell Tech is aimed at capturing the ‘digital traces’ we already generate and turning them into actionable insights for patients and clinicians. These digital traces are often referred to as ‘small data’–data that can be used to identify an individual. 

Our interactions in the digital world, and even those in the physical world, are time-stamped and geo-stamped, meaning that both the time and the location of the interaction can be identified. Consider, for example, the fact that Google can save your location history and send you monthly timeline highlights of where you went that month. Imagine the insights that could be generated if this kind of data were paired with your Google search results. You might be able to discover that your onset of the flu (as evidenced by your search for ‘flu remedies’) coincides with eating at a new restaurant (as recorded in your monthly timeline), or that your increased stress (cue your ‘breathing techniques for stress’ search) correlates with a family event you attended. 

These kinds of insights could not only help you make more optimal health choices, but could also give your doctor more power to help you achieve better well-being.

As Estrin puts it, “One question many clinicians ask their patients is, ‘what time do you leave the house in the morning?’ It’s problematic because it’s a subjective question, and you’re hoping your patients remember accurately. But for people with symptoms like chronic pain, depression, or irritable bowel syndrome, it’s an extremely useful metric. And it’s one we can get very accurately from that person’s mobile phone — even a very basic phone — and one that the person themselves can use to monitor their own health.”

Open mHealth

According to Estrin’s research website, the goal of her small data project is to ‘explore a personalization approach in which individuals actively harness their own digital traces.’ There are many health-related platforms that could be created once people can effectively ‘take back’ the data generated by these digital traces. To create those platforms, developers and health practitioners need an infrastructure and support from others who are working on similar projects. This is where Estrin’s non-profit endeavor, Open mHealth, comes into play.

The term ‘mHealth’ means ‘mobile health’ and refers to anything that helps people with their health that is accessed on a mobile device or other wireless technology. Open mHealth is an open source platform where people can build programs that harness the power of small data to help patients. For example, Open mHealth partnered with the makers of an app called PTSD Coach to foster meaningful conversations between PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) patients and their doctors. 

As a believer in the power of collaborative efforts to build healthcare platforms, Estrin is excited about the open source nature of Open mHealth:  “Part of the story of small data is having it happen in an open architecture content because you can then build upon each other’s skills. You’re not counting on any one vendor to build the system, and you get a very exciting Internet economy.”  

There are many benefits of highly-specific systems that can track an individual’s actions and yield health insights. However, as with any sensitive data we make available online, this information could be used for harm—something that Estrin is not naïve about: “The same data that is useful to help [us] understand how someone is responding to a therapy or a drug is also data that can be very exposing about them. I am interested in developing new ways to put these data and technologies to use in a way that is more privacy-aware from the perspective of the user and context than is typical in our social media-dominated online lives.”

Through her work with finding ways for patients to better communicate their needs to clinicians, and working to do this in a collaborative way that prioritizes privacy, Deborah Estrin is living up to her family’s ideals for using technology to solve problems. In the future, perhaps your doctor visits will be more efficient because your doctor has highly-specific data about your health–data made possible through apps like those built using Open mHealth. 

Today, data is being used to make medical predictions. Take for example the new Apple watchOS 6, which enables users to know in real time whether a sound like a concert or sport event environment will damage their hearing. Who knows what we’ll be able to do with data and computer science in the decades to come! As they grow up, our kids will need to ask the kinds of questions that will help them solve problems across industries and careers. Help your child get prepared for whatever comes next–to not only understand evolving technologies, but to create them! Investing in a Tynker plan is a great way to help kids ask questions, solve problems, and think critically–all skills they’ll need to create the technology of the future.  


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