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On Centre | Penn State: Researcher gets grant to help use data to improve health

What do a pedometer and Amazon.com have in common?

Aside from the fact that you can buy a pedometer from Amazon.com, the common denominator is information, and a Penn State researcher wants to find a way to harness that information to keep people as healthy as possible.

Donna Coffman, research associate professor in Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development and principal investigator at the Methodology Center, recently received a National Institutes of Health Big Data to Knowledge Program grant.

The $500,000 award will help Coffman explore ways to use big-data collection methods for biobehavioral change and maintenance over the next three years.

“Thanks to smartphones and wearable devices, we are living in an age where rich data are commonplace,” Coffman said.

“Amazon, Facebook and Google all use new forms of big data to sell us things. As a society, we can use other new forms of big data to improve public health, once we build the right tools.”

That means finding ways to use the kind of information your Fitbit or other wireless activity trackers that gauge things like the number of steps you take in a day, the distance you run, the calories you burn and the hours you sleep — all things that can be transmitted to a cellphone or tablet for monitoring.

Coffman wants to find ways to make people more active, less stressed and more aware of their diet and other health data by analyzing that information and helping translate it into usable information, the same way Facebook can tailor the ads that show up on your feed to pages you’ve liked or Amazon can have the new James Patterson book waiting at the closest warehouse for you to order because, let’s face it, you’ve bought all the other ones.

“By developing, extending and applying big-data methods to biobehavioral health data, we can help individuals develop and maintain healthy behavior regarding physical activity, diet and stress management,” Coffman said.

The ultimate objective?

To find a way to handle the large amounts of data in an instant, offering real-time solutions and healthy interventions “at the specific moment when it is needed, increasing efficiency and effectiveness while decreasing participant burden.”

Just remember ... you still need to take the steps for the pedometer to count them.

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