Wrestling with Big Data and a Tiny Assassin

Ola's poster on managing global health data was featured in Western's Interdisciplinary workshop.Kemi Ola’s research mission is to dethrone the deadliest animal on the planet; the mosquito. Surprised? Consider that these tiny assassins transmit life-threatening diseases, including malaria that collectively kill over one million people every year. With rising cross-border trade, international tourism and global-warming, malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases are reappearing in regions where they had been eradicated and are spreading to new geographic locations including North America.

"I have personally endured the full assault of malarial fever and it is not something I would wish upon anyone," says Kemi. Her perspective is shared by numerous public health professionals who are working with officials, physicians and the public to prevent the rise of mosquito-borne diseases the world over. Ironically, one of the major challenges they face is the overwhelming quantity of available data. To come up with effective health-management plans they often need to combine intuition and on-the-job experience with volumes of information that could fill up hockey rinks.

"We are woefully inadequate at analyzing such large volumes of data quickly and efficiently," Kemi explains. As a PhD student in the Department of Computer Science and a member of the aptly named INSIGHT group at Western (Human-Centered Informatics & Interactive Visual Interfaces), she is developing software to quickly analyze massive quantities of data and visualize them in a way that intuitively makes sense.

'Trying to make sense' seems to be a well-worn phrase in Kemi's world. She regularly frequents art galleries and museums, getting inspiration to tackle her own work, that of "converting information through a visual medium that facilitates understanding."

As a passionate pedagogue, she is aware of the importance of communicating information in a way that is easily understood and assimilated. Apart from being a teaching assistant at Western, a former outreach coordinator for the Department of Computer Science and one of the organizers for this year’s Western Conference on Science Education, Kemi spent a year teaching computer science to undergraduates in Nigeria. She strongly believes in "imparting knowledge but also instilling in students a desire to seek it." As one of Western's Learning Development Fellows, she applies her teaching philosophy to build bridges between the instructor and the student.

Ola's academic path included teaching at Babcock University, Nigeria in 2011.In the context of her own research, Kemi is attempting to bridge the distance between human and computer. While computers are capable of handling large amounts of data with a well-defined initial set of conditions, humans are more adept at working with the fuzzier, more ill-defined questions that call for active, on-the-fly decision making. A computer could easily multiply three ten-digit numbers within seconds, but would struggle with deciding whether we should watch a movie on Friday night or Saturday afternoon. The latter is a nebulous, ill-defined problem with numerous conditions that we solve quite easily and on a daily basis. "If an epidemiologist wants to track the outbreak of the West Nile Virus in London, how does she divide tasks between herself and the computer and how does she incorporate previous malarial data in order to deal with the current situation?" questions Kemi who is essentially trying to combine the creative problem-solving dexterity inherent in the human mind with the sheer processing power of computers.

“I have seen friends die unnecessarily because of the lack of public health awareness or resources,” says Kemi.  So, an equally important part of her work is targeted towards conveying public health data to the general population so that they understand the risks and are aware of the steps to take to protect their health.

As a young girl growing up in a traditionally conservative Nigerian society, Kemi shares that people laughed at her unconventional academic and career path focused in the areas of math and computer science. Now, armed with undergraduate and graduate degrees in computer engineering, math and computer science, sneers are replaced with quiet admiration as she equips the medical community and the public with newer, more efficient ways to use public health data in order to make informed decisions and implement better health policies.