RWJF Wants to Put all that Fitbit Data to Work

Stores of personal health data accumulating through use of wearable tech, mobile apps and social media stand to offer a scope and versatility researchers rarely see in clinical studies. A major health care funder just made a $1.9 million grant to put such data into action.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently awarded the grant to the University of California, Irvine and the University of California, San Diego to fund the Health Data Exploration project. The initiative will bring together researchers and companies that deal in personal data, to collaborate on research projects that could shed light on the complex factors that influence health.

Results from clinical research trials tend to be slow, narrow and lack a holistic view of how health issues fit into patients’ lives. With the rise of consumers quantifying their behavior with services like jogging apps, FitBits, calorie trackers and even logging activity on social media, researchers across disciplines have been anxious see what they can glean from the pool.

There are challenges, clearly, the main one being privacy. But early research by the project suggests consumers may be more generous than we might suspect with such info, given proper safeguards. Other hurdles involve the decentralized nature of consumer data, and the need for uniform rigor when it comes to collection.

All this opens the door for programs like the one RWJF is funding. The nonprofit and philanthropy realms have seen a large potential role for themselves when it comes to facilitating the use and safeguarding of such mass amounts of data, especially considering the scandals plaguing governments and industry when it comes to handling consumer information.

There’s also a tremendous perceived potential for transformative research coming out of data science, especially in the area of health care, where wrangling and making effective use of patient records has long been a difficult challenge. 

RWJF and the Knight Foundation, for example, are jointly supporting the Personal Genome Project, a creation of Harvard geneticist George Church to collect personal and genomic information from a large pool of volunteers that will be open to collaborative research.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation also supported a project with $10 million, starting in 2005, that challenged teams to create innovative tools with personal health records. 

The funding spree is not limited to health, however. Especially in academia, funders are ponying up large sums to establish data science centers, or otherwise put big data to use in pursuit of their existing goals. 

Learn more about data science funding here:

The Data Science Philanthropy Craze