Seeking ground truth in data: update on a project

Chronic pain is a major health issue across the globe. Researchers estimated that at least 10% of the population in the United Kingdom are suffering from pain conditions. If we consider the entire world, some estimated that over 20% of the population have chronic pain and that results in more than 20 million ‘pain days’ per year. Naturally, it is important to examine how pain conditions affect people’s well-being and their productivity in workplace.

Our research team (Digital Footprints Lab at the Bristol Medical School, led by Dr Anya Skatova) specialises in using Big Data to investigate human behaviours and social issues. In our previous works, we have already established a link between the purchase of pain medicines and the proportion of people working part-time across geographical regions of the United Kingdom, which suggests an economic cost of chronic pain and an impact on national productivity.

With the funds provided by the Jean Golding Institute (JGI), we decided to directly investigate the ‘ground truth’. That is, instead of examining pain at geographical levels, we designed a survey to ask individuals about their pain conditions, well-being, physical health states, and employment status. Importantly, and relevant to JGI’s focus on data science, the survey also asks individuals to share their shopping history data with us. With the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in place, residents in the United Kingdom have the right to data portability, which means people can choose to share their data held by companies to external organisations, such as a university or a research team. In our design, participants are asked to donate their loyalty card data related to their shopping at a major supermarket with us. This study allows us to ask important questions, such as how the frequency and types of pain relief purchases are related to different types of pain conditions reported by participants. We further asked questions including how pain conditions affect people’s life satisfaction and their ability to work, which might collectively have an impact on their shopping patterns beyond just the purchases of pain relief products.