“We don’t understand pain well, and we don’t understand addiction well,” says Stanley Ahalt, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “but we can use the urgency of the health challenge to do better science.”

Data sharing is key to bringing research to life. Open science is a key motivation for the Helping to End Addiction Long-term® Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative®, Data Ecosystem. To match the complexity of the opioid crisis, HEAL uses an all-hands-on-deck approach to finding scientific solutions: Currently, more than 1,000 research projects are underway ranging from basic science to health services research. As a result, says Ahalt, HEAL data is highly diverse – imaging, molecular, exposure, qualitative interviews – and there’s a lot of it.

As part of the HEAL Stewards group, Ahalt works with HEAL-funded scientists to help them make their data useful, as defined by the acronym FAIR: findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable. FAIR data principles are the bedrock of open science, in which research results are widely available to everyone, not just researchers in a specific field.

As part of that work, the HEAL Data Ecosystem focuses on metadata (“data about the data”), explains Ahalt. Put simply, metadata adds contextual information about the data to make it more useful to others. Examples include the title and keywords in a research paper, when it was published, and how the experiments were done. Imagine trying to locate a picture on your smartphone – your phone uses metadata about images to retrieve those family beach photos from two summers ago using search terms that identify metadata.  

Through listening to data speak, HEAL is taking a holistic approach to health and disease, says Ahalt. Using data creatively brings together different scientific perspectives, to look beyond molecules, organs, or even specific diseases – but rather to see a “whole human who needs help.”

Gathering all the data together into the HEAL Data Ecosystem offers hope for those people and communities who need it, Ahalt says.

“We can figure out collectively how to look at this problem in a more creative way.”

Watch Ahalt’s full interview (2:58 min. watch).

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