How Open Data Can Help Fight the Flu

This season, influenza activity started about 4 weeks early and was intense. Influenza-like-illness rose quickly to well above the baseline of expected activity and remained elevated for 15 consecutive weeks, making this season slightly longer than average.

2012-2013 Flu Season Wrap Up, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

When open data and an acute problem meet, great civic apps are often born.

Last year in Chicago, the acute problem was the more severe than anticipated flu season and the powerful civic app it helped to foster was Chicago Flu Shots by software developer Tom Kompare.

Developed for the Chicago Department of Public Health, Kompare’s flu shot finder was incorporated into the City’s official web site and served as the flagship application for helping Chicagoans quickly and easily find locations near them where flu shots were being dispensed. As important as this was, the Chicago Flu Shots app would go on to have an even broader impact – beyond the borders of the City of Chicago – before the raging flu season had ended.

flu-shots

Making it quick and easy to find a location that dispenses flu vaccinations is an ideal problem for a civic app to help solve.  Information on flu shot locations and schedules can be easily displayed via a web site, mobile app, or even via SMS, and can be easily integrated into a personal calendar or reminder app. In addition, data on where flu vaccinations are dispensed are usually compiled – albeit in widely differing formats – by local public health officials.

Among the more vexing challenges facing public health officials during flu season is not just making people aware of the availability of vaccinations but also getting people to follow through and receive them. It’s far too easy for many of us to continually delay receiving vaccinations because of perceived inconvenience. Not only does Chicago Flu Shots display the location where vaccinations are being dispensed, it also shows details like cost, eligibility and hours of operations, and even provided directions from the user’s location to the facility dispensing vaccinations.

Several weeks after being implemented in Chicago, Chicago Flu Shots – which Kompare made freely available on the code sharing site GitHub – was “forked” and implemented in Boston. Then in Philadelphia. In each successive instance where it was implemented, local developers used data obtained from the new host city’s public health agency. What started out as a notable civic app for its high profile use in Chicago went on to become a prime example of the potential impact of civic software development and open data for cities across the country.

The lesson for municipal leaders and advocates of open data became clear – make it easier for civic app developers in different cities to implement a new solution and it will quickly spread from city to city. The one significant impediment to possible wider implementation of Chicago Flu Shots last year was the lack of readily available data in more cities, and the lack of a consistent format for developers to use to more quickly implement it in their home town.

One of the most powerful aspects of civic software development is the potential for reuse of these applications in multiple cities that may face similar challenges, or where similar kinds of open data are available. This principle lies behind efforts like the Code for America Commons and the Code for America Brigade, which is now active in over 30 cities in the U.S and international in Poland, Ireland and Japan. As with the Chicago Flu Shots app, one of the most significant impediments to realizing this potential is the availability of consistently formatted data across jurisdictions.

Open data advocates can help foster the creation of civic apps that can be shared across cities by working toward the development of shared data standards and APIs. These shared standards can help make civic apps “plug and play” – cities that make the same data available in the same format can quickly and easily adopt civic apps built in other places. The Open311 specification is a great example of a data standard that has been adopted in multiple cities and helped to foster the creation of apps like the 311 Daily Brief and City if Bloomington, Indiana’s uReport 311 app.

In response to the experience of last flu season, open data leaders in several large cities came together under the auspices of the Code for America Peer Network to develop a data specification for flu shot locations. Such a standard, it is believed, will help bolster the reuse of apps like Chicago Flu Shots that can be used to find nearby locations where flu vaccinations are dispensed, no matter which city you live in.

The draft data specification has since been developed to the point that it is ready for initial adoption, and several large cities including Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco are now using this data specification to make their flu slot location available for public use. The specification itself is on GitHub and is open for anyone to make suggestions for enhancements or changes – the goal is to continue to develop and refine this specification as it gets adopted in more cities and becomes more widely used by civic app developers.

The hope in developing this data specification and implementing it in large cities is that it will foster the creation of new applications that raise awareness about the availability of flu shots and make it easier for people to find locations where shots are dispensed. The aim is nothing short of marshaling the growing army of civic hackers in cities across the country the to try and make this flu season less severe than the last.

Whether the 2013-2014 flu season will be as severe as the previous year remains to be seen. What we do know is that civic app developers in cities across the country will be better equipped than before the help mitigate the problem by leveraging a new standard for data on flu shot locations.

[Note – this post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.]

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