Healthcare industry ready for Big Data

Healthcare might be primed for a shift.

As we've discussed in this space before, the industry has a uniquely strong need for high quality analytics. Not only is the context difficult — every human body has different needs and weaknesses, the stakes are also high. An incorrect diagnosis from a physician can mean the difference between a patient improving or dying. Custom database software could help in those efforts, by allowing doctors to pool their knowledge together and determine treatment courses, but is currently not widely implemented.

What's the hurdle?

It isn't a lack of available information. Hospitals keep records on every patient, from their age to their gender to any medications they received while in treatment. In fact, on a small scale, it's those exact charts that help guide providers in the best course of action for a particular situation. However, translating this value to a wider scale has so far proven elusive.

Part of the issue is a lack of standardization. All of the valuable data collected is vaulted by closed hospital systems, which makes it difficult to share with any efficacy. With great effort (and often prohibitive cost), retrieval is possible, but the formats and terminologies still tend to be particular to an institution. Getting information into a clinical system is the easy part, but making sure it's possible for it to interface with other systems has, to this point, been largely fruitless.

Slowly but surely, that is changing.

One important update is that certified medical records have to at least provide summary data on patients in XML formats. While this isn't the only change that needs to take place, it at least represents a shift in the mindset that prevents cooperation, and a starting point for sharing data across interfaces. Doctors are coming around to the need for collaboration, which has only intensified in recent years: there are an estimated 14 providers caring for each patient with five or more chronic diseases.

In addition to technological breakthroughs, financial circumstances have and will continue to play a role in the development of big data systems. Insurers are looking to adjust how they determine costs and save money wherever they can, and researchers are interested in developing effective and cheap methods for treating large groups of patients. 

Public perception also appears to be shifting in the direction of big data. Simply put, people want quality healthcare, and an antiquated system with limited communication between interested parties is not going to be as well equipped to provide it. Eric Schadt, director of the Institute of Genomics and Multiscale Biology at Mount Sinai Hospital, predicted such a shift in an interview with USA Today, especially as more providers realize that the option is even available.

"I think in five years' time, we will be talking about advances in several different areas such as cancer that are routinely impacted by big data," said Schadt.

While the custom information-sharing technology needed to truly revolutionize the way we care for patients might not be here yet, the changing landscape suggests that we are headed in the right direction. 

Weather channel leans on big data

When it comes to information, weather forecasting is inundated. Not only are more data points being added every day, they're coming from around the world, interacting in a highly delicate pattern. A butterfly flapping its wings, the old saying goes, can set off a chain of reactions that ends in a tornado. 

So when it comes to large scale analysis, the field is a perfect fit.

"Weather is the original big data application," says Bryson Koehler, executive VP and CIO at the Weather Company. "When mainframes first came about, one of the first applications was a weather forecasting model."

Today, his company processes some 20 terabytes of data every day, resulting in what Koehler boasts are the world's most prescient forecasts. However, not content with simply being in poll position, they are in the process of implementing an entirely new platform that will bring the company's analytic capabilities to new levels. 

Currently, the Weather Company uses a structure that comprises a collection of applications and 13 data centers. While mainframes aren't currently part of their plan, a wide range of other databases are, including including MySQL, Microsoft SQL Server, Cassandra, MongoDB and PostgreSQL. This melange allows them to capture 2.2 million points of information every 15 minutes, from centers globally.

The new system, however, will be built on Basho's Riak NoSQL database and run on Amazon's cloud, upgrades which will allow for significantly faster and easier processing. Use of Amazon's cloud allows Koehler to move to what he describes as a "infrastructure-as-a-service model." The new platform splits up the world (from land, to sea, to ice caps) into 30,000 chunks of four square miles each, whose weather can be predicted even weeks in advance.

For a brand as expansive as The Weather company, this raw computational power is a big boon. The parent behind brands like Weather Channel, WeatherFX, Weather Underground and Intellicast, hundreds of thousands of customers rely on the information it provides, including 30 airlines. In all, it receives billions of computer-based requests daily, and they all need to be delivered quickly. 

Even if you're not responsible for delivering weather information to large groups of people, you might still want to be able to track patterns, especially if you farm or garden. Filemaker Consultants can help you to create a custom database that will organize all of your weather information, along with any other variables that might pop up. 

Data analysis helps retailers identify trends

Pattern recognition is one of our most crucial instincts. Being able to understand new things quickly by using information gleaned in the past could help early humans avoid eating the wrong berries, or being devoured by an aggressive animal. That tendency carried into the modern institution of sales: identifying what a customer needs is the first step towards being able to provide it for them. 

In the past, this process was largely organic. A salesperson could meet every person that came into their shop, and interact with them on a personal level to get information about what might motivate them. However, many modern companies don't have that luxury: they have hundreds of thousands or even millions of potential consumers, and global reaches. It's physically impossible to shake every customer's hand and have a face to face conversation.

Big data can help bridge that gap.

By using custom software, like the FileMaker service, companies can take the piles of piles of information they have, and sort it into something useable. Take, for example, clothing retailer Brooks Brothers.

The company maintains more than 500 physical and online clothing outlets worldwide. The amount of information collected was overwhelming, and no one person could parse through it without any level of effectiveness. Analytics director Cindy Lincks was at a loss, unable to sift through the spreadsheets quickly to find usable nuggets that would translate to sales. 

The solution, it turned out, was custom database software. Starting with their online store, Brooks Brothers began using big data principles to make decisions. Rather than poring over each granular piece of data, they outsourced the job to a firm that specialized in large-scale analytics. Some of the results, it turned out, were surprising. Lincks recalls one suit in particular whose prominent placement led to unforeseen problems. 

"Logically you'd put the suit in the first spot in the store order, but what we didn't notice was it was being overexposed in so many places, and it was being sold out quickly," Lincks told the Washington Post.

This wound up disappointing potential customers, and hindering conversions.

Now, Lincks and her team can solve such issues in real time, and much more quickly. Instead of spending precious time poring over individual data points, they can focus on innovation and resolution: the software provides reports automatically that once would have taken an estimated 8 hours to compile manually. Instead, the analytics team can just log into their dashboard, look at the info on customer views, inventory and ordering patterns and make quick determinations about where their marketing dollars should be allocated.

Big data isn't just for big businesses: smaller retailers can use these principles on a modified scale. A program like FileMaker pro can help you organize and analyze more quickly and efficiently than simple spreadsheets ever could. Instead of being caught by surprise by trends, you can monitor them as they happen, and be in the best possible position to take full advantage and convert more sales.  

It's the next best thing to having a personal conversation with each customer. 

FileMaker Development improves Northwestern Hospital care

Today's leading edge hospitals are quickly learning the diagnostic value of beside ultrasound scanning. However, learning to perform them isn't an easy task: it takes formal training to become certified. At the Internal Medicine Residency Program at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, they realized that FileMaker development could help with this daunting process. 

Initially, they considered using other software. However, when judging excel vs. FileMaker, they found that the former just didn't have the ease of use or flexibility required for such a difficult and important task.

In the past, training happened largely via index cards. Doctors had to lug them around everywhere, recording data on the date, time and any observations made during their exams. Considering how many components they were looking at—heart function, lungs, organ size and any other abnormalities—it quickly got tedious.

In addition, if one of the cards was lost or forgotten, that information simply didn't get recorded.

No longer, thanks to FileMaker. Using the Go program for iPhone (most of the doctors already use these smartphones as pagers), physicians can access a custom tracking program. With just a few button presses, they can easily record, with is transmitted wirelessly to servers. 

This functionality doesn't just help caregivers perform ultrasounds, it helps them do them better. When teaching a a trainee, a trainer can quickly evaluate how accurate the diagnoses are, and step in to correct any ongoing mistakes. In addition, physicians can track their own progress and improve on any areas in which they might be lacking. 

Says Dr. David Tierney, director of the hospital's ultrasound program: "In the end, it is all about taking the best possible care of patients using the tools we have available. If ultrasound can fit in our little black bag, it is wrong for it not to be there. FileMaker is helping us make bedside ultrasound part of our standard tool set."

Just another way the simple program can help save lives. 

Cholesterol website issues highlight need for data analytics in healthcare

Most medicine is tested via clinical trial. A drug is developed, and then researchers get as many people together as possible to test the efficacy of a treatment method. Even a large trial might last just 5 years, which (while thorough), isn’t always adequate when it comes to long-gestating illnesses. When it comes to fighting chronic disease, such as those caused by high cholesterol, doctors can clearly use more information.

That’s where custom web application development can come into play.

On Monday, the New York Times reported that a new online calculator, which came in conjunction with new guidelines for lowering cholesterol, could be overstating risk. This miscalibration could lead to millions being identified incorrectly as candidates for statin drugs, which in turn puts a strain on doctors and manufacturers. According to Dr. Michael Blaha, director of clinical research at the Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease at Johns Hopkins University, part of the issue is that people’s habits and health have changed in the decade-plus since the data was collected.

“The cohorts were from a different era,” Dr. Blaha told the New York Times.

With many patients hesitant to take statin drugs, news of these miscalculations could cause some caregivers to lose credibility. While the guideline developers were quick to stress that each patient is an individual and requires uniquely tailored care, continued issues with the website could undermine their attempts to create a standard diagnostic guideline.

The inability for the clinical trial system to accurately adapt to shifting demographic information highlights the role that big data can play. Rather than the currently fragmented electronic health records doctors are forced to wade through now, a unified system (and a web application capable of analysis), could help physicians determine the best courses of treatment — in real time.

Start-up applies Big Data principles to solar installations

Big Data is taking to the skies. Literally. 

A new start-up is applying sophisticated information analysis to the construction of solar structures. Using databases and web-based tools, Sun Number is helping millions of households determine how eligible they are to get energy from roof-mounted panels.

The software works by gathering data about a particular area, including surrounding buildings, tree heights and roof angles. Ryan Miller, the company's co-founder and its chief technology officer, described some of the information that goes into their determinations.

"With our three-dimensional model, we will get the roof characteristics, orientation, shading from vegetation, shading from buildings — all of the things that impact the local solar conditions — and we bring in some regional climate factors and that ultimately goes into the score," Miller said in an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Once Sun Number has mapped out a metropolitan area, residents can log into the website and plug in their address. The software will give their house a score on a scale of zero to 100, based on how much sun they can expect to get on their rooftop. Any score of above 70 qualifies the owner as a good candidate for a solar installation.

This appraisal is free of charge, as the business is currently supported in large part by a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Sun Number is currently in eight locations, with plans to expand to over 20 more in the coming months, including New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

While this program hasn't reached every state yet, the principles behind it can be applied anywhere. If you're a Connecticut Filemaker Developer looking to make a difference in the field of alternative energy, consider a similar local project. 

Council forms to help software developing companies use Big Data ethically

Big data has been making big news, and software developing companies aren’t the only ones taking note. The increased ease of collecting and analyzing large amounts of information has caught the attention of academics.

One major concern for these researchers is the ethicality of collection processes. Thus, they decided to form a council, partially in response to the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) request for innovative projects in the field.

The Council for Big Data, Ethics and Society will meet for the first time in 2014, and will include contribution from the NSF. Co-directing the efforts will be Microsoft researchers Kate Crawford and Danah Boyd and two computer-science-savvy professors: Geoffrey Bowker from the University of California, Irvine, and Helen Nissenbaum of New York University.

Fen Zhao, and NSF staffer, described the need for a project like this in an interview with Venture Beat.

“We’re doing all of these major investments in next-generation internet (projects), in big data,” said Fen. “How do we in the research-and-development phase make sure they’re aware and cognizant of any issues that may come up?”

The council hopes to guide future researchers in proactively considering the ethical implications of work they might pursue. Rather than a blanket edict on what practices are “good” or “bad”, it hopes to work with methodologies that are appropriate for specific projects. The group doesn’t want to constantly stifle innovation: rather, it hopes to guide new ideas forward in a way that is consistent with big-picture ideals.

The timing is perfect. As more and more software developing companies discover the efficacy of large-scale data operations, this outside council will enable creative thinking while helping to provide a moral framework.

Big Data won’t replace your brain — but it can work with it

From gardeners looking to make their flowers bloom to athletes trying to perfect their jump shots, a wide range of people have found help with FileMaker and other data management programs. However, for all of its power and function, Big Data software can't replace the human brain — no matter how much processing power it can harness.

It's true — the top computers already outpace the best humans in endeavors as complex as chess. But the apples to apples comparison does both the technology and people a disservice. 

Computers excel at repetition. A machine can take the same input, perform the same processes and spit out consistent answers. It never gets tired, it never wanders from its task and it never gets distracted by a bird that landed outside its window. It delivers consistency and speed.

Humans, on the other hand, excel at innovation. We have a unique ability to contextualize the information we've received, and point out outliers and create narratives. In order to create a truly new experience, there needs to be a departure from the standard formula, which is an area that people far outshine machines in.

What does this tell you about how to use FileMaker?

Ultimately, it means that databases are valuable, but only as valuable as the analysis that you can glean from them. It's not just enough to know (for example) which defenders are giving up the most points. You then have to figure out a way to score. Figuring out what you want to get out of the program is an important step in effectively using a software like FileMaker.

Big Data can tell you which flowers need the most sunlight. But arranging them in a beautiful bouquet?

That's a human task. 

Amazon enters the Big Data game

Amazon, the giant online marketplace that sells everything from candy to appliances, has released its entry into the Big Data Games.

The service is called Kinesis, and it's designed to support the efforts of software developing companies. It will be able to stream data instantly, as well as analyze thousands of streams any second. It's also scalable, allowing app developers to pull from as many sources as they need at the time.

As such, it is price a la carte. You pay based on the amount of information used and how it is packaged. The model is based on a unit called a "shard" which measures Internet thoroughput. One shard will allow a user to capture 1 MB per second of data at up to 1,000 PUT transactions per second, and enable apps to read data at up to 2 MB per second.

For those looking into custom database software, this development could be an interesting one: this real-time data will allow companies to react to changes instantly, as well as provide all the other benefits of information analysis. Kinesis might ultimately grant a wider flexibility to businesses with wide user bases. 

In a statement, Terry Hanold, vice president of new business initiatives at Amazon Web Services, described the value of this functionality. 

"Database and MapReduce technologies are good at handling large volumes of data," Hanold said. "But they are fundamentally batch-based, and struggle with enabling real-time decisions on a never-ending — and never fully complete — stream of data. Amazon Kinesis aims to fill this gap, removing many of the cost, effort and expertise barriers customers encounter with streaming data solutions."

While for a smaller company, a service like FileMaker might be the best solution, this large-scale data capturing could be big news for more massive corporations. 

How to use FileMaker to organize your garden

Have you ever managed to kill a fake house plant? Never been able to make your flowers flourish? Just don't have that green thumb?

You're in luck. Now, all you need to know for a wonderful garden is how to use FileMaker.

Setting up a custom database is easy with FileMaker. You can input the type of plant, the light requirements and how much water it needs and when. Then, you can easily mark off when each plant has gotten exactly what is required, which can take the guesswork out of gardening. It's even simple to add a category that tracks weather patterns, so you can easily remember which days have given your buds the most sunlight.

If you use FileMaker Pro for iPad, uploading pictures is a cinch. You simply take a snapshot of the flower in question, and it can be immediately uploaded into your database. This functionality makes real time tracking a possibility: you don't need to rack your brain to determine how your garden is progressing, you can just scroll through a series of pictures. Any wilting or drooping can be caught early, before it becomes a serious problem. 

Maybe the best part of all is the opportunities for analysis. The software allows you to sift through a ton of information and organize your plants by which need the most attention. Not only will you have a better garden, you'll become a better gardener by being able to look back and correct any previous mistakes you might have made. With FileMaker, you just might have more of a green thumb than you ever realized.