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Health data expert highlights environmental impact of data-driven research

A Southampton doctor is raising awareness of how data-driven health research has an environmental impact. She suggests greater focus on ‘green IT’ could help protect the environment.

Professor Anneke Lucassen is co-lead of Data, Health and Society at the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre. She looked at the environmental impacts of using Data-Driven and Artificial Intelligence technologies (DDAI) in health research.

She said: “These technologies are rapidly changing how health research is conducted. Health data collection and storage is massively expanding and there is a compelling need to consider the environmental impact and how we can reduce it.

“Health-related DDAI research can have tremendous health benefits but its adverse environmental impacts are often not recognised beyond the power to run, say, the computer that’s using the technology.

But DDAI have an increasing environmental footprint including:

· the energy required to generate, process and store large amounts of data

· the materials required to build data centres

· an increase in e-waste from the disposal of electronic appliances

The UK was used as a case study. Anneke and colleague Dr Gabrielle Samuel looked at all the available literature, including published papers and the Web, to see how the environmental impact of DDAI is being discussed. Their findings showed that there is currently very little awareness of, and engagement with, these issues.

Prof Lucassen said: “Until recently, these issues were not considered relevant for the health sector. We now need to engage more effectively to think about ways to make DDAI more environmentally sustainable.

“Ideas to improve the environmental impact, called ‘green IT’, can be quite simple from turning off electrical equipment when not being used, to looking at improving energy consumption at data centres and better e-waste recycling. Other ideas include looking at the type of storage needed for data. The more accessible the data needs to be, the greater the footprint, and it may be that some data needs to be stored but it can be done with much lower energy costs.

As we embark on the new data, health and society theme in Southampton, it is important we build this awareness into our plans.”

Read the full paper here.

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