From Big Data to Babies: Leveraging Technology for the Common Good

Author: Nina Welding

On the global scale, research increases knowledge; it provides the fundamental insights from which engineers, scientists, and physicians develop solutions for community health and wellness challenges. There are numerous medical studies tracking every health issue possible. From the cradle to the grave, researchers — like those in the Interdisciplinary Center for Network Science and Applications (iCeNSA) at the University of Notre Dame — are developing personalization algorithms that analyze people’s lifestyles, shared experiences, similarities, behaviors, and habits in order to impact their well-being.  The center’s research focuses on translating this Big Data into personalized health and wellness tools that can help people make better choices for better outcomes. One of the most recent efforts to leverage this technology involves a partnership between Notre Dame and Everyday Health, a leading provider of digital health and wellness solutions. The University, supported by a gift from Everyday Health that includes data and personalized content, will be conducting a study of pregnant women to address premature and low-weight births. Although the study will initially focus on expectant mothers in St. Joseph County, Ind., this partnership combines Everyday Health data with Notre Dame technology to address a national concern.

According to the March of Dimes, one in every 12 babies born in the United States has a low birth weight. In Indiana’s St. Joseph County, the local health department’s 2012 annual report also identified premature and low-weight births as significant statistics: A total of 519 women did not receive early or adequate prenatal care, and thirty-two women did not receive any prenatal care. This lack of care is a known contributor to low and very low birth weights, premature births, and the need for neonatal intensive care. It corresponds to the 52 extremely low birthweight babies (under 2.2 lbs.), 47 very low birthweight babies (between 2.2 and 3.3 lbs.) and 311 low birthweight babies (3.3 to 5.5 lbs.) in the county during the same time.

The health issues faced by low birth weight babies as they begin life are daunting enough (perinatal morbidity and a tendency to develop infections), but factor that with likely ongoing issues (delayed motor and social development and possible learning disabilities), and the statistics become even more shocking. This does not include the cost of the neonatal care many of these children will require or the medical issues many will face in early childhood. For example, the difference between the average hospital cost for a full-term birth versus the pre-term birth of a low-weight baby is more than $24,000. (This includes the average cost of a neonatal intensive care stay.)

Since the largest factors that lead to low birthweight babies are the health of the mother and her socioeconomic status, the goal of the study is to create and sustain a personalized continuum of care for underserved pregnant women. This continuum will promote healthy, full-term pregnancies through smart phones and increased access to adequate prenatal care. The study, which will measure the effectiveness of this continuum, will be led by Nitesh Chawla, the Frank Freimann Collegiate Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering and director of the iCeNSA, and conducted in collaboration with Michiana Health Information Network (MHIN) and regional healthcare providers.

Women at all stages of pregnancy will be enrolled into the study beginning this summer. They will be linked through an application on their smart phones to the personalized health care research platform developed by iCeNSA researchers. This novel medical care platform will feature customized data and content feed from Everyday Health, as well as MHIN. The application will provide specific information relating to each woman’s pregnancy and lifestyle choices. As they proceed through the program, the women in the study will be able to access additional informational content to encourage healthy choices, as well as more frequent prenatal care visits. In short, it offers personalized health education and options that are comprehensive, efficient, and economical.

The research team will be able to track how often individual participants access the application and use the information. This data will be paired with each participant’s health records throughout the pregnancy and her baby’s progress during the pregnancy and at birth. An end-of-study report will be used to determine if the study should be scaled up for statewide and nationwide usage.

For more information on the study, contact Nitesh Chawla at or 574-631-8716.