In this post, Anna Davidson, our Director of Product & Technology, reflects on Big Data and the Internet of Things, and how we can use them for good.

While attending a keynote at a recent geospatial health and human services conference, I asked the speaker, 1) what recommendations he has for those of us working in public health tech to gain access to the treasure trove of data the private sector has access to, like the areas of the country most impacted by the most prevalent chronic health conditions (heart disease, diabetes, etc.), the zip codes associated with those areas, and the metadata that can help us understand more about the root causes and patterns of these conditions and, 2) if he was aware of any programs to share that data for the greater good of public health. He said, “Yeah…I get asked that question a lot,” but was unable to offer any suggestions. We later had lunch and decided to cut our losses and talk about our families.

And even though his answer did not surprise me, I have to ask: Why is that? Why is the digital data available to make decisions on store and pharmacy openings, shared with for-profit partners to increase sales revenue and optimize profits not available, even in anonymized form, to help advance the wellness of our nation?

The concept of collecting data about your customers and markets is not new. There have long been tools around used to analyze, gain insights, and make forecasts. Precision targeting has been around as an online technology for over a decade. We’ve become used to the concept of looking at shoes online, and having those same shoes virtually chase us around the internet, like a lonely Wall-e of lost opportunity, that new experiences like the Internet of Things, or IoT, devices controlling your thermostat or visiting a doctor online have been rolled out with rapid consumer adoption.

In fact, we have become so used to the convenience of custom online experiences, that we have stopped asking questions about what drives them. The answer? Data. And lots of it.

One of my favorite examples of just how much data exists online is this simple infographic from 8 years ago, which shows Facebook as the third-largest nation:

We are reaching a point where the generation that has never lived without targeted online technology is reaching adulthood—Generation Z. This generation of citizens is 61 million strong and ⅔ as large as the Baby Boomers. My daughter is a member of this generation. She’s now 14 years old and I first understood that she would see the world very differently when she was four. I had taken a video of her on my somewhat-dated 3 megapixel camera. When I showed it to her, she asked me if it was “Only on the camera, or on the internet.”

There are other experiences this generation will have that no other has experienced: they’ve been using Google Classroom, which allows for paperless assignments and grading, since elementary school, had their own e-mail, and have most of their medical records digitally stored. We’ve quietly created the digital twin of an entire generation.

At Counter Tools, we talk a lot about the concept of “place” in public health, and how place matters in public health equity. The zip code you are born in and live in is likely to determine more about your health and life expectancy than your genetic code. How many sidewalks are available in your community? How many tobacco retailers are in close proximity to schools and what is their density? How accessible are health services? How much affordable fresh food is available within your zip code? And how do these factors influence your chances at living a healthy life?

Imagine a world where you have more control over the digital data collected about you, and that data is used not just for profit, but for good—to help determine the areas of the country most in need of access to fresh food, digital early screening for chronic conditions, and early education and intervention. Changing our mindset to a common good could start with any given company’s willingness to speak to their consumers differently about data, and to partner with public health at the state level to create a healthier communities. We have a lot of work to do to get to this place, but the leap is only as big as our willingness to ignore the conversation.