IBM Watson Health: The cure for big data hype?

IBM Watson Health gives doctors access to health data and insights for personalized care. What's the opportunity here for CIOs? Also in Searchlight: Yahoo buys Foursquare; Google faces EU antitrust charges.

IBM unveiled this week that it's launching Watson Health, a business unit that will provide personalized insights to various healthcare providers, insurers, medical researchers and even patients. The company will offer the Watson technology as a cloud-based service that will be able to access and analyze a wellspring of patient data, thanks to a number of partnerships and acquisitions that IBM also announced this week. 

Apple, Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic, a large medical equipment manufacturer, are IBM's first partners in the health venture. The company also announced the acquisition of two health technology startups, Explorys in Cleveland, and Dallas-based Phytel, which both provide cloud analytics technologies.

"We're going to enable personalized healthcare on a huge scale," John E. Kelly, senior vice president of IBM's research labs, told The New York Times.

Lynne Dunbrack, research vice president for IDC's Health Insights, said that by offering Watson Health as a cloud-based service, IBM gives small and midsize healthcare organizations access to two resources that would normally be out of reach: Watson's powerful combination of natural language processing and cognitive computing, and data available from the sizable and diverse customer base that comes with IBM's partnerships. Explorys, for instance, uses data on 50 million patients to identify patterns in diseases, treatments and outcomes.

That access could radically change how healthcare organizations treat patients, Dunbrack said. Right now, 80% of data collected by healthcare organizations is unstructured, and therefore extremely challenging to analyze and apply to patient care. Watson could change this. "The fact that you can put the right pieces of information in front of a clinician at the point that they're making a medical decision, all that's going to really drive improving health outcomes and improving operational performance," she said.

Watson Health follows two other recent IBM initiatives aimed at commercializing the company's cognitive technology: partnerships with Twitter and The Weather Company to mine their wealth of consumer sentiment and weather data, respectively; and its launch of an Internet of Things unit.

Mike Gualtieri, principal analyst at Forrester, said the timing is right for Watson Health. IBM has had deep analytics capabilities for years, but it didn't have access to the wealth of data required to demonstrate the business value of these capabilities. "Great analytical capabilities without data is like a jumbo jet without fuel, " he told me in an email. But with the stores of health data now available from these various sources, "these analytical capabilities can really start to shine," he said.

The personalization era?

But it's not just healthcare that can benefit from personalized insight. Dunbrack urges CIOs and IT organizations across various industries to follow Watson Health's progress closely. She pointed to an IBM event last year that demonstrated use cases for Discovery Advisor, a Watson application that parses millions of studies, scientific documents and other data points to help medical researchers and scientists formulate hypotheses more quickly. But the computer system is also being used by organizations ranging from the Institute of Electronics Engineers to the Institute of Culinary Education, and the Tucson Police department, which is looking to use Watson to analyze tens of thousands of reports, interviews and other documents that are generated from investigations.

Gualtieri said that all industries should be looking at using analytics to personalize services for their customers, whether these customers are consumers or businesses. Companies that take advantage of predictive analytics to provide this personalization -- something that, surprisingly, not many enterprises are doing now -- will have an edge over competitors.

"Data shows that fewer than 33% of large enterprises are doing predictive analytics. That's a huge opportunity because it means most competitors are not doing [this]," he said. "CIOs have to move beyond that 'big data' hype into the business value of analyzing that data using predictive analytics."

CIO news roundup for week of April 13

Take a look at other tech headlines from the week:

  • Is Yahoo making more moves in mobile? TechCrunch reported this week that the long-standing rumors could finally be coming true. Sources tell TechCrunch that Yahoo is closing in on a $9 billion deal to buy Foursquare, the startup known for its local recommendation app. Yahoo and Foursquare refused to comment on the speculation.
  • Google found itself under fire this week from EU regulators. The EU's Competition Commissioner is accusing the company of taking advantage of its search market dominance in Europe by skewing its search results to favor its own comparison-shopping service.
  • Microsoft rolled out Skype for Business this week. The software replaces its older enterprise communication tool Lync. While customers can currently switch between the Skype for Business interface and the traditional Lync interface, the transition will be complete by the end of May.
  • What does Mark Zuckerberg's work week look like? Surprisingly normal, said the Facebook CEO in a Q&A: only 50 to 60 hours a week.

Check out our previous Searchlight roundups on the White House hack via spearphishing and IBM's $3 billion bet on the IoT.

Next Steps

Elsewhere on SearchCIO, read about how smart robots will shape the role of IT. And on sister site SearchDataManagement, dig deeper into IBM's efforts to commercialize Watson. Also, Weather Co. buy lifts IBM big data analytics effort.

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