Open health indicators and Big Data for better public health

Our daily purchases, use of social media and travel patterns result in a flood of consumer data each day. However, it is not only businesses that benefit. When linked together from multiple sources, this data can help solve pressing public health issues and reveal how our environment influences our behaviour and health – for the better and worse. Researchers from the University of Liverpool, together with the Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC), have created an Open Source data index that summarises qualities of neighbourhoods across Great Britain.

The challenge

An example of a problem that this data-centric approach can address is adult and childhood obesity, which are associated with type 2 diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease (CVD). These conditions are largely preventable through certain modifiable risk factors, such as poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking and air pollution.

The wealth of consumer data has opened a new way to pinpoint hotspots and causes of these health challenges, such as a high density of fast-food outlets or polluting main roads. Professor Alexander Singleton’s team, in collaboration with the CDRC has developed a unique multi-dimensional index, Access to Health Assets and Hazards (AHAH), to better understand the relationship between local geography, the natural environment and how it can influence public health issues.

Research action

The AHAH index provides an open set of indicators, translating consumer data (from loyalty cards and other sources) into insights that can help local authorities understand how to design healthier and more pleasant living environments. The index is linked with health data from local communities and is based on 15 measures across three domains:

  • Retail outlets: fast food, gambling, pubs/bars/nightclubs, off-licences, tobacconists
  • Health services: GPs, pharmacies, dentists, hospitals, leisure centres
  • Environmental quality: green space and air quality/pollution.

The high-quality processed data has been freely available to download since June 2017 and is provided as an interactive map.

Working in partnerships

CDRC collates data from many organizations, and AHAH index data is provided by CDRC and created in collaboration with the Geographic Data Science Lab at the University of Liverpool, allowing researchers to develop innovative policy-informing research projects.

The Geographic Data Science Lab combines data sources and provides fresh perspectives on the dynamics of everyday life, providing geographic data-driven solutions to socio-economic challenges associated to urban and rural living.

The project was funded by CDRC and received additional grant support through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership funding scheme from the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF).

Outputs and outcomes

The AHAH project has made a range of difficult to access consumer data readily available, processing and linking multiple sources into a user-friendly and meaningful interface. Data can be accessed through a set of open access tools that facilitate innovative interventions by researchers, local governments and policy makers.

The multi-dimensional index allows decision makers to understand real-world factors that determine if a living environment is verging toward ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’, rather than surveying aspects in isolation.

The tool has been incorporated into Public Health England's 'Wider Determinants of Health' FingerTips data resource, used by all local governments in England.

The Geographic Data Science Lab combines data sources on the dynamics of everyday life, enabling evidence-driven solutions to the challenges of urban and rural living.

Professor Alex Singleton

Back to: Department of Geography and Planning