MacArthur Fellow Prof. Deborah Estrin

Professor Deborah Estrin, founder, and director of the Health Tech Hub at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute and associate dean of Cornell Tech has been awarded a 2018 MacArthur Foundation fellowship for her innovative work using mobile devices and data to address social challenges.

MacArthur fellows receive a no-strings-attached award – widely known as the “genius grant” – of $625,000 over five years.

Professor Deborah Estrin

In their description of Prof. Estrin’s work, the MacArthur Foundation noted that Prof. Estrin was among the first to ascertain the potential of using the digital traces of our daily lives for participatory mobile health, and that “Our increasing reliance on personal electronic devices, such as cell phones, GPS, and fitness trackers, and online tools such as banking and shopping, generates an enormous amount of data about our personal behavior patterns—what Prof. Estrin calls ‘small data.’”

In an interview with the Cornell Chronicle, Prof. Estrin said, “I was and remain very humbled and grateful. I feel a sense of commitment to do good by it, and to live up to it.”

In 2011, Prof. Estrin and collaborators launched Open mHealth, an open-source software architecture to integrate various types of small data that could be used to build customized applications that address specific health conditions. Open mHealth avoids the proliferation of redundant, non-interoperable digital health services, and its scalability encourages wider adoption of mobile health technologies by individuals, researchers, and medical care providers.

MacArthur said that Prof. Estrin is also working to empower individuals to gain access to, curate, and ultimately act upon their personal small data. She and colleagues at the Small Data Lab are developing several platforms and applications for management and use of personal data.

According to Prof. Estrin, who is also a professor of computer science at Cornell Tech and of health care policy and research at Weill Cornell Medicine, privacy considerations are central to her work. She believes it is possible to leverage insights from digital traces without overly compromising individual privacy.

“The same data that is useful to help understand how someone is responding to a therapy or a drug is also data that can be very exposing about them,” she said. “I am interested in developing new ways to put these data and technologies to use in a way that is more privacy-aware from the perspective of the user and context than is typical in our social media-dominated online lives.”