Contributors: Mary Martialay, Regina Stracqualursi, and Torie Wells

When you tune in to the news on a given day, it’s likely that you’ll hear about some way that data has been misused, which has resulted in a widespread feeling of apprehension toward it. What you may be less familiar with is the positive influence that data can have on the quality of human lives. While systems must be put in place to ensure the safe and ethical use of data, data itself and the new technologies being developed to analyze it hold immense power, especially when it comes to the health of current and future generations.

Here are a few ways that data is currently being used to make critical advances in health care:

  1. Autism Diagnosis and Treatment

Data played a key role in the development of a physiological test that can be used to accurately predict an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. Through the analysis of complex data sets, Juergen Hahn, head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and his research team were able to identify metabolic patterns in the blood of children with autism. This finding has the potential to help diagnose autism sooner.

  1. Glucose Monitoring and Insulin Delivery

People living with Type 1 diabetes rely on glucose monitors and insulin pumps to live. Every day, these devices play a critical role in helping them manage their blood sugar levels. Currently, people must test their blood sugar before deciding how much insulin they need and then inject insulin into their bodies using a needle or insulin pump. Thanks to recent developments, people with Type 1 diabetes can now utilize continuous glucose monitors as an alternative to the traditional finger-stick method of monitoring blood sugar levels.

Through a project funded by JDRF, a team of researchers led by Wayne Bequette, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Rensselaer, is using data to improve the algorithms that control continuous glucose monitors, with the goal of developing a way to control blood sugar levels in the same fashion that cruise control regulates the speed of a car.

  1. Human Mortality Tracking and Reporting

While individual deaths may not always be indicative of widespread problems, examining deaths collectively can help identify preventable causes of death as well as mitigate the negative effects of certain situations and environments on one’s health.

“MortalityMinder,” an app created by Rensselaer students for a contest sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, analyzes large quantities of data in order to identify social determinants that contribute to premature death related to cancer, cardiovascular disease, so-called “deaths of despair”  involving drugs, alcohol, or suicide, and other causes throughout the United States.