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IBM 'Splash' project informs health policy with science by simulating cause, effect

IBM 'Splash' project informs health policy with science by simulating cause, effect

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IBM's new research project aims to crunch data from disparate sources to simulate cause-and-effect relationships that influence healthcare decisions.

IBM on Thursday launched a new research project to improve human health insight by collecting and analyzing data across several sources to simulate cause-and-effect relationships that influence healthcare decisions.

The project, codenamed "Splash," will integrate data from sources such as agriculture, transportation, city planning, eating and exercise habits, economic status and family life to simulate real-world interactions.

The goal: to provide individuals, governments and businesses with fact-based recommendations for health-related decisions.

The project will initially focus on the issue of childhood obesity.

The idea behind the project is simple: human health is affected by many more factors than family history and what goes in and what comes out.

For example, finances, urban planning, disease transmission, clinical research, media and other factors have indirect influence on a person's health. Understanding the full picture is necessary to develop effective programs that improve health, IBM says.

For example: Chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity account for 70 percent of all deaths in the U.S. and more than $1.5 trillion of healthcare spending each year. We all know that obesity and processed foods and a lack of exercise go hand-in-hand, but it's unclear how external factors influence those factors.

The question is just how much influence some of those factors actually have. For example, if both parents work and the TV is always on, does that have more weight on childhood obesity than local bus routes, or the density of grocery stories?

How do you unravel the interdependencies of a family's situation, education, genetics, poverty, location, transportation, retailing and advertising to make the right call?

That's where the Splash project comes in. If people can actually measure the influence of these factors, city officials can better plan bus routes or incentivize certain types of retailers or simply make better choices for public school lunch offerings.

"In many cases, the data and models exist. They just need to be put together in a consumable way that shows the wider connections and potential actions that can enhance individual and community health," said Josephine Cheng, IBM Fellow and Vice President, IBM Research - Almaden, in a statement.

"This is a huge challenge from both a social and technological perspective, but we believe our expertise in service science, computational modeling, math and large-scale analytics can help answer these important questions."

In a video, a few doctors weigh in on how the project will affect their work:

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Andrew Nusca

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Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure