In this MEDICA-tradefair.com interview, Prof. Brockmann talks about natural experiments and explains how wearable technology and collected data can give us valuable insights into the spread and the dynamics of infectious diseases.
Prof. Brockmann, what is digital epidemiology?
Prof. Dirk Brockmann: The field primarily builds on a combination of new methods and data sources. This refers to data that is being collected via smartwatches, wearable devices, or smartphones, for example. This data is often not generated under controlled conditions but stems from so-called natural experiments, meaning activities of daily living.
From a methodological perspective, digital epidemiology lies at the intersection of computer science, health research or medicine, making it similar to bioinformatics. This science field emerged because data processing was needed to make gene sequencing data analysis possible. Today it is a well-established branch of science.
Can you give us an example of data from natural experiments?
Brockmann: Mobility data is one example. Many people own a smartphone today, and it traces and tracks their movement and location. We can learn a lot from this and obtain relevant epidemiological information.
Another example is contact networks in hospitals. You equip staff and patients with RFID chips, allowing detailed contact tracing and analysis. The assessment of these networks is critical to understand the spread of nosocomial infections in hospitals.
You also spearheaded the development of the German Data Donation App of the Robert Koch Institute. What real-world activities can you analyze by harnessing this data?
Brockmann: A study from early 2020 indicated that fever prompts an increase in your resting heart rate, which can be measured by wearable devices. If a person’s data deviates from the statistical norm, we can deduce that they run a fever.
Many people voluntarily shared their data with us via the Data Donation App. Fever is a common symptom of Covid-19 – though fever does not necessarily mean you are infected with Covid-19. If many people in a large group run a fever, it could be an indicator of the spread of Covid-19.