Big data and better solutions

Photo by gotoVan

World Science Day for Peace and Development is coming up next month. Simon Fraser University (SFU)’s Data for Good initiative is applying big data and artificial intelligence (AI) to finding solutions for societal problems like homelessness and addiction. Julian Somers, PhD, of SFU is at the forefront of the initiative.

The United Nation (UN) celebrates the annual World Science Day for Peace and Development on Nov. 10. The day is a celebration of both science and the role of it in society. Two goals of the World Science Day are strengthening public awareness of the role played by science in developing peaceful and sustainable societies as well as renewing national and international commitments to using science for societal benefit.

In the Lower Mainland, SFU’s Data for Good initiative is working towards the goals of World Science Day for Peace and Development. Data for Good combines big data and AI to create solutions to societal problems in Canada.

Big data are data sets that are too big for typical databases to process. Big data allows for quicker and more efficient data-based decisions and predictions for the future. Big data and AI are intimately connected. Developing big data technology depends on AI’s theories and methods while AI requires big data for support.

Launched in 2019, work on the Data for Good initiative is being completed with the efforts of experts from SFU and elsewhere, advocates and government partners. The goals of Data for Good are to improve government services, build safer cities and bring positive change for peoples’ health and well-being.

The costs of care

Somers is a SFU Distinguished Professor of Health Sciences. His research covers topics from mental illness, crime and human displacement. His input is frequently sought by media organizations covering his areas of study. Somers and his team have attained new insights made possible by using big data and AI.

They were able to analyze every individual in British Columbia’s criminal justice system from 1998 to 2015. What they found from this big data analysis was a correlation existed between the B.C. system’s patients taking prescription medication and drops in crimes being committed.

Somers’ work used a variety of big data and AI methodologies and tests to obtain its results. Furthermore, his work created large databases that help present a comprehensive understanding of the root causes of homelessness, mental illness and addiction in B.C.

“The evidence of ‘what works’ includes results from randomized controlled trials and objective as well as subjective sources of data,” says Somers. “These studies are highly consistent despite being performed by different investigators and using different methods.”

Somers and his team conducted a study in 2015 and 2016 that discovered 300 people on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside were costing taxpayers almost $27 million in healthcare and social services. Individually, the cost was up to $247,000 per person which at the time, Somers said did not not surprise him.

“A group of about 300 people are nearly continuously involved with courts & corrections,” he explains. “Close to 100 per cent had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder as well as drug dependence.”

Somers says the total financial cost for people afflicted with homelessness, mental illness or addiction across B.C. is $55,000 per person every year. That same cost, he adds, was replicated in three analyses from 2007 and 2019 with different methods and investigators.

People affected by multiple disorders are not only on the Downtown Eastside and other urban centres in the province.

“About 2,000 who experience multiple repeated offences, mental illness, addiction and receive support are distributed around B.C., ” says Somers.

Recovery-oriented housing

By using AI and big data, Somers and his team were able to pinpoint recovery-oriented housing as a more effective method of providing care for persons afflicted by homelessness and mental illness and aiding their recovery compared to group-housing and usual care.

According to The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH), a non-partisan research and policy partnership between academics, policy and decision makers, service providers and people with lived experience of homelessness, housing is the first step to recovery. Once housed, it becomes easier for people to move forward with their lives and get the support needed to tackle issues like mental health and addiction.

“In randomized controlled trials, we compared recovery-oriented housing, group housing and usual care in Vancouver,” says Somers. “All three conditions cost about the same.”

The people Somers and his team worked with all had about nine offences in the last decade. All were homeless and suffered from addiction and mental illness.

“Reoffending in recovery-oriented housing was reduced by 75 per cent compared to usual care,” he says. “Reoffending among those in group housing was not significantly lower than usual care.”

Somers notes that recovery-oriented housing did not require any changes to fees, scheduling or compensation.

“We paid and trained our staff to practice our model, and we arranged access to existing services as appropriate under current practices,” he adds.

Somers says there are many other benefits in recovery-oriented housing for people experiencing mental illness and homelessness not observed in other care centres like group-housing. He lists a reduction in emergency department visits, improvements in the quality of life and enhanced personal identity as resulting from recovery-oriented housing.

The benefits of recovery-oriented, says Somers, housing are not limited to Vancouver and British Columbia alone.

“We have observed the same benefits favouring recovery-oriented housing in Toronto, Montreal, Moncton and Winnipeg,” he adds.

Furthermore, Somers says the results of recovery-oriented housing have not differed between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

“We obtained the same results in Winnipeg where the overwhelming majority of participants are Indigenous,” says Somers. “We also learned specific lessons regarding the merging of reconciliation with the design and implementation of better responses for Indigenous people.”

For more information on Julian Somers, visit

For more information on World Science Day for Peace and Development, visit