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Technology Review has just published this year’s list of 35 innovators under the age of 35. Two notable patterns that delineate more general trends are first, the focus of young innovators on technologies with a social impact and second, the use of social media to advance scientific knowledge. Unsurprising, there is also an overlap between the two.

One out of five innovations (8 out 35) concern either cheaper technologies or technologies targeting marginal communities. Examples include:

  • A computer slate which reads paper records produced by micro-credit co-ops with the aim of improving their efficiency without forcing people to use computers when they are not yet ready or cannot afford them (Aishwaryan Ratan, 30, Yale University)
  • A software designed to help educate children about HIV ‘in a way that’s sensitive to the country’s cultural mores’ (Piya Sorcar, 33, Teachaids)
  • Software that helps people living in countries with slow computer landlines to pool together the bandwidth of their connections in order to reduce download times (Umar Saif, Lahore University)

An almost equal number (6 out of 35) seek to capitalize on the information gathered on the Internet, and especially through social media, to better understand specific problems and/or further advance communication and business. Examples include:

  • The social network PatientsLikeMe which uses the information of their members to learn more about the effect of drug and other treatments on patients suffering from chronic and/or life-threatening diseases (Paul Wicks, 30, PatientsLikeMe)
  • Application of game theory to understand how people interact and collaborate in the world of social media (Judd Antin, 32, Yahoo Research)
  • Analysis of the way search engines are used in order to anticipate and better tailor one’s searches (Xiao Li, 32, Microsoft)
  • The 4chan.org website as a successful online community based on anonymity (Chris Poole, 23, Canv.as)

Use of the internet entails the disclosure of personal information, information about our preferences but also information about the way our brain works. Some of this information is exchanged intentionally (as when we register ourselves as users of social media platforms), more often it is done indirectly (as, for instance, when we use search engines).

That this information is great for business is shown by the success of Google and Facebook, and there are valid concerns regarding privacy. A good, albeit overly alarming, book review article on this was published in the summer issue of The New York Review of Books by James Gleick (and can be read here).

Notwithstanding these concerns, the fact remains that the increased computational ability of modern times, combined with the power of statistics and probability theory, can yield amazing new knowledge about our brains and our bodies, which, in turn, can be put to good use in scientific research.

Take for instance a website like PatientsLikeMe. This fills a real gap with respect to communication needs among patients for the purpose of support; but, it also helps overcome the deficits of the interaction between patients and medical professionals as well as those of clinical trials. The latter are often of a small scale and, therefore, it is not uncommon that when drugs are approved for commercialization, the scientific base for establishing effectiveness is still quite thin. Having transparent and accountable access to patient information, with the latter’s consent, can help faster improve the knowledge base on how drugs work.

Admittedly, this is not a perfect solution. But given that ‘seeding trials’ (whereby doctors supply patient information to pharmaceutical companies without patients’ consent), are still the norm, and the regulatory framework remains under-developed, the use of social media to provide such information is worth considering as a way forward.

Making use of social media to advance scientific knowledge is a grey area—but it pays to make it less so.