What is Digital Phenotyping and how it could change people’s lives while respecting their privacy

11 January 2024
tecnologia, Focus On

In 2024, asking ourselves if we know anyone without a smartphone seems almost an anachronism. In fact, according to data processed by Statista, in 2022 86.29% of the world’s population owned a smartphone, with a constantly growing trend that made these devices the most loyal companions of individuals. A ubiquity that has given rise to a new scientific frontier: digital phenotyping.

Born from an intuition of some brilliant researchers in the field of neuroscience, digital phenotyping studies are based on a premise as simple as revolutionary: if it were possible to study the data generated by everyday interactions with smartphones - with the informed consent of the participants -, would open new horizons in the field of health and well-being. The term "digital phenotyping" itself merges the digital world with the biological concept of phenotype, indicating how the observable characteristics of an individual are also expressed through the use of technologies.

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What exactly is digital phenotyping; definition and potential

Digital phenotyping is a field of research that deals with the study and analysis of "digital phenotypes”: behavioral traces that people leave when using digital wearables devices (smart watch, fitness tracker and so on) and smartphones (Insel, 2017).

The richness of the data collected through sensors such as GPS, accelerometer and gyroscope (so-called "passive data"), in some ways is surprising, as they provide detailed information about our daily habits ranging from sleep cycles to physical activity levels, to the frequency and pace at which we interact with our devices.

This data, if interpreted correctly, can reveal behavioral patterns in real time and provide insights into the physical and mental health of an individual like never before, offering an unprecedented perspective on the daily life of the individual.

The potential of this technique is countless. Digital phenotyping was born in the medical field, helping enormously in the early diagnosis of mental disorders or in the personalized adaptation of medical treatments. In fact, the impossibility of making a diagnosis if not through very long interviews or questionnaires and sometimes difficult for some patients to complete, is somehow an obstacle in the medical landscape. Therefore, having a tool that provides information about the behaviors of individuals in real time is of enormous help for cognitive neuroscience.

An area still little exploited but with great potential concerns the Corporate’s world, namely helping colleagues by collecting their feedback and giving insight on how to improve their quality of life through digital phenotyping.

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How digital phenotyping works and why it does not violate the privacy of individuals

As also evidenced by research on the subject by Intesa Sanpaolo Innovation Center’s Neuroscience Lab, digital phenotyping allows researchers to access the movements, the microphone of the smartphone, to posts posted on social networks and to calls from people. Access that presents privacy issues at first glance, although the reality is definitely more reassuring: it is not at all. 

Current field research on digital phenotyping demonstrate solidity from an ethical point of view and, except specific cases where direct monitoring is necessary to protect patients' health, researchers don’t have the possibility to link the collected data to the person who provided them, securing his identity. In addition, participation in these studies is always on a voluntary basis and requires informed consent in which participants are aware and agree on the collected data.

For digital phenotyping, in fact, individuals install an application developed specifically for research that collects data and anonymizes them, thus ensuring the anonymity of participants. If that were not enough, GPS data research has taken huge steps forward to ensure privacy, allowing you to add trajectory distortions so that information remains interesting but at the same time anonymous and, consequently, not attributable to a specific person.

Another interesting aspect of this type of study is that the application sends participants a notification every day or according to a predetermined time frame (the so-called push notifications also known as "active data"), to which people must respond from their devices.

In the case of medical research, for example, the questions will be related to the problem of the participant, while in business applications the questions will probably be aimed at understanding the well-being of the employee.

Therefore, digital phenotyping is not only a simple data collection tool, but is proposed as a methodology that respects the integrity and privacy of the individual, opening up new possibilities in the field of personalized medicine and wellness management.

With the passage of time and technological evolution, we are witnessing how the interaction between humans and device can offer an unprecedented and profound look into the complexity of human behavior, promising not only to transform the health sector but also to positively influence every aspect of everyday life.

In a world where digitalization is advancing unstoppable at a fast pace, digital phenotyping therefore stands as a beacon of knowledge, with the power not only to decipher the most hidden behaviors, but also to direct individuals towards more conscious choices for their health and well-being.

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