Powered by Local Health Data: The Location of Cardiac Arrests Near You and Yelp’s Public Health Foray

Optimized-YelpScreenThere was a lot of humility on stage when members of government organizations presented this week at the Healthy Communities Data Summit (HCDS) in San Francisco: “We could never pull this off on our own.” “We move at snail’s pace.” “We are poor.”

Like its cousin event Health Datapalooza, taking place in Washington, D.C. next month, HCDS’ purpose is to rally different groups around open data. Last year at Datapalooza, the government showcased applications and tools built with the data it had released. It called on private organizations to follow suit and to release their own data. And its strongest call was to anyone and everyone able to make useful things with that data. The message was to keep trying.

Government organizations in the Bay Area, and all local governments for that matter, have a big advantage over the federal government when making the same call to action. On their side is the fact that local developers are motivated to work on projects that can have a direct and observable impact on the place they call home.

Take the technology executive turned fire chief of the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District in California. He was having lunch one day when he heard sirens nearby. They continued to get closer and closer. It wasn’t until the fire chief left the restaurant that he realized an emergency team was responding to a man who had gone into cardiac arrest next door. Had he known, he could have reached the man and started administering CPR long before EMS arrived.

Bradley Kreit, co-director of the Health Horizons Program at the Institute for the Future, told this story at HCDS. He went on to explain that the fire chief reacted by developing his own app for those very situations. First responders and people trained in CPR can now download the PulsePoint app, which alerts them in real time to cardiac arrest incidents nearby.

“First responder classes were so popular, they were booked out for two or three months in advance in San Ramon because people all of a sudden felt they could put the skill of learning first response to use,” Kreit said.

Lessons Learned: Getting the Community to Actually Use Your Data 

In 2002, food borne illnesses were top of mind in San Francisco, said Cyndy Comerford Scully, manager of planning and fiscal policy for the City and County of San Francisco. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had just released a report that said there had been virtually no progress made in this area for the past decade; little had been done to try to prevent the spread of disease agents, and food inspection processes had gone unchanged.

When San Francisco started experimenting with open data two years ago, one of the first datasets it published was food safety information. It wasn’t easy to get it online though. Scully said it took nine months to convince the technology department to agree to set up an FTP server. The server lasted six month until the technology department shut it down. That temporary ended Scully’s open data experimentation.

“And no one actually really seemed to care,” she said. It’s likely that no one even knew the data was there. Which taught her department something: presentation matters. Users should be able understand data in a way that’s relevant to them. Around that time, a parallel project presented itself.

Jay Nath, CIO for the Office of San Francisco’s Mayor Edwin M. Lee, was working with Yelp as well as New York City to develop open standards for food safety data. Nath brought Scully’s department on as a content expert. The public/private partnership was officially announced in January, and using the department’s data, Yelp said it would publish health scores on restaurant pages.

“We see ourselves as data factories, but we don’t know how to market data,” Nath said. “We need to go to organizations like Yelp and Google, obviously making it open, so that they can distribute to their millions of users.”


However, as Scully pointed out, the Department of Public Health can’t market all of its data through Yelp. That’s why it got creative about the way it markets them itself. For an example, a recently published interactive graphic illustrates rent affordability gaps in San Francisco. Residents can see how many full-time minimum wage jobs they’d need to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the city’s districts.

The government can acquiesce that they’re starting to get good at this. But it’s a work in progress. For example, the food safety rating feature on Yelp isn’t very visible. And the rent graphic, though very interesting and probably useful to some organizations, was difficult to locate online. Plus, there is much else to be done with more data. So, as the government will readily admit, they can’t do this on their own.

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