Big Data Informatics: Progressive Caution in Health Data


In my Big Data Informatics class at Indiana, we are looking at the societal and ethical implications of Big Data in several domains. Today I want to delve a little bit more into the arena of how data is used in the public health field.

In Chapter 11 of his book Ethics, Computing and Medicine, Kenneth W. Goodman states that a standard for public health informatics includes determining a standard for health practice, a standard for health research and a standard for the use of information technology. He defines “progressive caution” as the tension between the need for scientific progress and the demands of a robust set of public health data ethics. Ethics function as both a floor and a ceiling – that is, an aspirational goal and also minimal standards practitioners may not fall below without being found negligent. Ethics thrives on new technology and science but there should be a balance of wanting science to progress but not at any ethical cost.

Progressive caution does not provide a straightforward answer to the tension between ethics and progress. There is a balance that seeks to minimize risk to individuals and society’s public health but also not to the point of unreasonably ‘restricting liberty’ (198). The path to scientific progress has to be tempered by carefully examining and implementing ethics standards appropriately within context. Another way to look at “progressive caution” is as a yield sign would be when one is driving on the road. Proceed forward, but exercise caution when doing so. Research involving human subjects and the data collected and used while doing so needs to have certain restrictions to protect the individual. Goodman sums up the concept by asking the question “How should we arrange things so that we enjoy the benefits of new technology while reducing, minimizing or mitigating the (potential) harms?” (199).

Today we looked at how Big Data is such an enormous part of our health. Developments in applying IT to the practice of public health pose interesting challenges to maintaining privacy without hindering technological progress.

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