British to study 500,000

Ok, so I know this is kinda old news but I just hadn’t gotten around to blogging about it and I kept putting it off. Tonight we get discuss, ladies and gentlemen, the largest scientific study every undertaken or even thought up of. This is the study to end all studies, at least that is the hope of the British researchers. The goal of this study is to take half a million British citizens, have them fill out health questionnaires and to donate their DNA. The citizens will then go on about their daily routine, and whenever they get sick, they will record it for the scientists. The goal here is to see if there is any link between the person’s DNA and the environment that they live in to account for them getting sick over someone else. Now when I say sick, we are not discussing just a simple cold or flu, rather cancers, heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

The problems that I see with this fall into three issues: Number One – how do compile the data and DNA for 500,000 people effectively, Number Two – privacy and Security for these people health information and DNA, Number Three – what is the point of this study. Let’s take these one at a time and explain what exactly is the problem and why I feel this is a problem.

First issue is the handling of data and DNA for that many people and variables in an experiment to last for so long and also to be as realistic as possible. These are people who will be living their own separate lives in approximately half a million different communities, being exposed and subjecting themselves to a huge variety of influences. Heart Diseases as many studies have show is triggered by a great variety of things, how do you plan to isolate whether it was genetics or environment that caused someone to suffer a certain problem. The other problem is the sheer mechanics of analyzing all the data that each person will develop for the organization. In short I feel that this study will not be completed in any real timeframe simply by sheer weight of numbers. The study is to big to be handled effectively.

That being said, the next issue is when we get to the privacy of the users and their medical information and DNA. Obviously this data is not going to be just put somewhere that any person would be able to interact with the data and steal it. However with the sheer size of the study, you would need dozens if not hundreds of people interacting with the information, to hopefully extract something useful. This is a very really problem, any one with common sense will tell you that as you add more users onto a system that have access to sensitive information, the more likely a mistake or error could occur and something bad happen. The more people you have to police and be sure no one does anything inappropriate with the data, the higher the likely hood someone will do something stupid. We have all done it at one point or another, said or done something that we knew very well was wrong and should not have done and it was stupid of us. Ok, take the likely hood of one person doing something stupid and multiply it by the number of people with access to the information.

Now comes the final and sometimes the one that most non-scientists complain about the most. What is the point of this study? (Note – I always accept criticism of my arguments, just write a comment if you feel I am wrong.) This study seems largely a waste, we already know that genetics does effect your chances of being affected by diseases and we know that environment plays another large part in this. It seems to me, that there is simply too many variables and not enough constants to make this study useful beyond learning the health characteristics of a portion of the British population. Which if the researches wanted that, they could analyze death certificates to find the causes of death. Overall I find this study too large to be handled properly both in terms of analyzing the data and also in protecting the personal information of the participants of this study.

P.S. Sorry about not posting last night, it was a busy night for me with classes and such. I will try to do something so I can be sure that I have something to post every night, but every once in awhile I might either get to it late or have a really short post or not even post anything. I’m in college and working a job, this is what I do for fun but I still have to study and work and such.

Justin Yost is a full-time Software Engineer and a part time educator. A graduate of Texas Tech University with a bachelor's degree in computer science, Justin relishes programming and learning more about anything and everything. When not working, Justin occasionally gives talks at the local PHP Meetup. In his free time, Justin enjoys backpacking and reading science fiction books.

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