Penn State team to develop digital 'collaboratory' that uses big data for population health research

Population health researchers may not be able to access crucial patient data for privacy reasons. (Image: Pixabay)

A team at Penn State University will build a research "collaboratory" designed to take advantage of big data to improve population health initiatives.

Providers have a wealth of data at their disposal, but researchers rarely take advantage of it because of privacy concerns. Penn State's project aims to build an infrastructure that would allow researchers to analyze health data pertinent to certain studies without compromising patient's sensitive or personal information, according to an announcement from the university. 

The team plans to complete the project—called the Digital Collaboratory for Population Health Research—and then share the infrastructure with other research institutes, said Vasant Honavar, the project lead and a professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology. 

Honavar said that sharing the infrastructure behind the collaboratory once the project is completed could help build a network that accelerates research. 

"You can build these predictive models that can be used to personalize interventions and improve health," Honavar said. "However, this is hard to do if each researcher has to overcome the challenges of accessing health data and integrating it with other data for each such project."

RELATED: Analytics, patient portals key population health tools for the 'silent middle' 

The collaboratory project is one of several funded by a $2 million seed grant provided by the university for strategic priorities. Other healthcare-related initiatives were funded as well, including a project to better integrate health data collected by state public health agencies. 

Data sharing and analytics are crucial components to population health efforts, especially for organizations that want to take an individualized look at trends. Population health programs are increasingly seeking to integrate community-based data to analyze the role that social determinants of health play in public health concerns.

The Penn State team sees its data collaboratory as a tool that could better individualize care; Honavar said the researchers are working toward "realizing the grand vision of personalizing health."

"We are a product of our genes, behavior and environment," he said. "In order to improve health, we need to look beyond treating individuals who are sick and need to understand the underlying genetic, environmental and behavioral factors so we can develop effective interventions."

In addition to the College of Information Sciences and Technology, the collaboratory project will include researchers from the university's Center for Big Data Analytics and Informantics, the College of Medicine and the College of Engineering.

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