IBM to Take On Public Health Issues

With the multiyear Project Splash, IBM will take its massive computational capabilities to help government agencies, health care providers and businesses develop comprehensive strategies to deal with a host of public health challenges, starting with childhood obesity.

IBM is turning its massive computational and data analysis capabilities to the health care field.

IBM officials on May 6 announced a project at their Almaden Research facilities to take public health data that's already been collected to help government agencies, businesses and health care providers develop strategies to better take on a host of medical issues, starting with childhood obesity.

Right now, only basic connections can be made when dealing with diseases like diabetes because, while massive amounts of data has been gathered, the data hasn't been collected, integrated and analyzed to the extent needed to develop comprehensive measures for combating the illnesses, according to IBM officials.

"When we think about the factors that affect a person's health, the biggest challenge of all is that there isn't just one factor, but it's a collection of interacting factors," former IBM executive Irving Wladawsky-Berger said in a video presentation about project Splash.

Those factors encompass a host of areas, from finance and urban planning to a person's eating and exercise habits, socio-economic status, family life, where they live, clinical research and the media, according to IBM.

With this multiyear project, Big Blue's job is now to integrate those factors together and help develop comprehensive programs to address the issues.

"Lots of different organizations have models or ways of understanding pieces of what is a very complex system," Paul Maglio, research scientist at IBM Research, said in a video presentation. "But nobody brings those different pieces together. That is what the grand challenge is: How do we put all these things together into a single, whole picture?"

That is what IBM is aiming to do with the broad technology tools at its disposal.

"Nobody else in the world has the computational ability and computational science that we have," Maglio said. "We're the only ones who can actually bring all of these things together and integrate them and actually run this in-house."

In the case of childhood obesity, the connection to processed foods and lack of exercise has been made, according to IBM. By analyzing all the data involved and running various simulations, the company may be able to help government agencies and businesses decide whether offering incentives to health food stores to relocate to town or to locate grocery stores closer to bus stops may be worthwhile.

Another example from IBM would be determining the impact of food labels on marketing plans, shopping habits or the quality of school lunches.

"Our ability to advance the health of our population is currently limited to maintaining healthy life choices and working within a health care delivery system because it's been impossible to understand and to quantify precisely how each factor in our environment plays a role," Martin Sepulveda, IBM fellow and vice president for integrated health services at IBM, said in a statement. "We hope the results of this project will help individuals, governments and businesses actually understand exactly how the actions they take affect health-and then work together to make better decisions that make it easy to be healthy."