Data for doctors: Big data meets a big business

While it’s fashionable to focus on data, one has to remember that what matters is what you can do with the data and how it can help grow a business. That is the rallying cry in the web world from Twitter to Facebook but also in an unexpected place: a Seattle hospital.

Ted Corbett, the director of knowledge management at Seattle Children’s Hospital, is using software from a company called Tableau to draw smart inferences from the 10 terabytes of data locked up in his servers and warehousing appliances. The hospital, which employs 5,000 people, uses the visualizations and easy access to data hidden away in multiple places to cut down on waste, reduce errors in medicine and help plan clinical trials. As organizations seek to store, analyze and derive insights from their data, companies are creating software to help them make sense of it all — because it’s not how big the data is, but what you can do with it.

Digestible data 

Tableau is one of several companies attempting to funnel massive amounts of data into a more human understanding. Others include Karmasphere, Revolution Analytics,TIBCO and SAS. Corbett explains that offering employees access to data via a simplified dashboard has helped the hospital better schedule its time in operating rooms and eliminate waste from the supply chain by improving the information needed for the hospital to implement some of its lean manufacturing tenets.

“Nurses and doctors, when they need test tubes or syringes, they would hoard things so when it got busy they would have them, but knowing whether you are pulling enough of the right supplies and having them available is a way to save on costs. So far we’ve saved $3 million out of the supply chain, and using Tableau we can find new ways to eke out more savings,” Corbett said.

Tapping data for real insights

Visualizations are one way companies are mining their existing data. Other companies are making products that integrate into existing ways of managing data such as Karmasphere or even Microsoft (s msft) with its data marketplace product, where a manager or analyst can buy access to data and import it into Excel. Instead of creating more frivolous infographics, these products are able to help businesses tap into existing data better and make some kind of meaning from it.

These companies may not have huge adoption today, but as the amount of data companies analyze expands, such solutions should become more popular. As Corbett notes he’s expecting to see up to a tenfold increase in data over the next few years thanks to things such as M2M communications within the hospital, personal genomics in medicines and electronic health records. “We’ll have an expansion in machine data — everything is Wi-Fi-enabled and pumping data all around the hospital– and there will be genomic data and electronic records,” Corbett said. He estimates that each patient record contains a “couple of gigs of data per patient,” which can add up.

Data tools for the masses

It’s helpful to have tools that researchers and statisticians can use to make sense of the massive piles of data they have to sift through. But for big data to really become a game-changing force in business, companies will have to develop tools for the common man — or at least the middle manager. Much like broadband, computers, electricity and other big changes in productivity, it has to filter down to the masses to really change the world.