Data in public health

Jeremy Berg in Science: “In 1854, physician John Snow helped curtail a cholera outbreak in a London neighborhood by mapping cases and identifying a central public water pump as the potential source. This event is considered by many to represent the founding of modern epidemiology. Data and analysis play an increasingly important role in public health today. This can be illustrated by examining the rise in the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), where data from varied sources highlight potential factors while ruling out others, such as childhood vaccines, facilitating wise policy choices…. A collaboration between the research community, a patient advocacy group, and a technology company ( seeks to sequence the genomes of 10,000 well-phenotyped individuals from families affected by ASD, making the data freely available to researchers. Studies to date have confirmed that the genetics of autism are extremely complicated—a small number of genomic variations are closely associated with ASD, but many other variations have much lower predictive power. More than half of siblings, each of whom has ASD, have different ASD-associated variations. Future studies, facilitated by an open data approach, will no doubt help advance our understanding of this complex disorder….

A new data collection strategy was reported in 2013 to examine contagious diseases across the United States, including the impact of vaccines. Researchers digitized all available city and state notifiable disease data from 1888 to 2011, mostly from hard-copy sources. Information corresponding to nearly 88 million cases has been stored in a database that is open to interested parties without restriction ( Analyses of these data revealed that vaccine development and systematic vaccination programs have led to dramatic reductions in the number of cases. Overall, it is estimated that ∼100 million cases of serious childhood diseases have been prevented through these vaccination programs.

These examples illustrate how data collection and sharing through publication and other innovative means can drive research progress on major public health challenges. Such evidence, particularly on large populations, can help researchers and policy-makers move beyond anecdotes—which can be personally compelling, but often misleading—for the good of individuals and society….(More)”