Sept. 24, 2018

Big promise for big data: UCalgary brings international conference to Banff

Leading experts showcase limitless potential of data mining, AI and deep learning in health

Hundreds of data scientists, scholars, and health professionals from all over the world descended on Banff for the largest conference of its kind, co-hosted by the Cumming School of Medicine’s (CSM) O’Brien Institute for Public Health. The experts were exploring how big data can tackle the most pressing health policies  and care challenges.

“In the age of algorithms and apps, the amount of health data available today presents an opportunity to respond to health crises, improve care, and inform policy in ways we’re only beginning to understand,” says Dr. Osmar Zaïane, PhD, a computer scientist and professor at the University of Alberta, who spoke recently at the International Population Data Linkage Network (IPDLN) conference.

“In the U.S., digital data in health care is reaching 150 Exabytes, or one billion billion bytes. You can’t even imagine what that is,” says Zaïane, who is also the scientific director of the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute. “If I put just the health-care data on DVDs, and stacked them one on top of the other, I will reach the moon twice.”

His session was one among more than a hundred presentations showcasing the ways in which cutting-edge work in data science, AI, and wearable technology can revolutionize care and allow governments to shrink costs, reduce inequity and prepare for — or even prevent — the next global health crisis.

Dr. William Ghali, MD, scientific director of the O’Brien Institute and co-host of the IPDLN conference, which welcomed nearly 600 delegates from 16 countries and five continents, said the potential benefits for care delivery and public health cannot be understated.

“How do we know when a new emerging disease is upon us? How do we know that there’s a cluster of unexpected deaths in a hospital? How do we know when falling vaccination rates are leading to outbreaks? How do we know if the satisfaction of the public with their care is improving or deteriorating? The answer is that it’s all in big data, and never before have we had a better state of readiness to harness information and improve health decision making and, ultimately, improve health,” says Ghali, who is also the co-director of the IPDLN.

Beyond investigating potential data sources, and technical strategies on how to gather data and how to mine them, the conference’s closing panel discussion also tackled the philosophical and ethical concerns bubbling beneath the surface in a technological landscape where personal data is being gathered, mined and stored at the individual level but at a global scale by private companies such as Google, Amazon and Apple.

The network plays an important role in public health and data science by fostering vital collaborations, explains Dr. Michael Schull, MD, CEO, and senior core scientist of Toronto’s ICES and IPDLN co-director.

“The network links individual researchers, institutes, decision-makers, folks who are in public engagement, ethics and privacy, a common community that is trying to use data to answer questions about population health, and to do so in a way that is not only on the cutting edge of science, but also responsive to the expectations of the public at large,” Schull says. “These meetings help us really build on those collaborations.”

The conference, which takes place every two years, was jointly hosted by the O’Brien and ICES, the first co-directorship in IPDLN’s history. The next conference, IPDLN 2020, will be hosted in Adelaide, Australia by SA-NT Datalink.

William Ghali is a professor in the departments of medicine and community health sciences and scientific director of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta at the CSM.