Short Takes On News & Events

HHS Sponsors Contest To Develop Emergency Public Health Facebook Apps

By Shefali S. Kulkarni

August 23rd, 2011, 12:15 PM

UPDATED at 3:52 p.m. — After the Virginia earthquake.

Photo by Florian via Flickr

The first thing East Coasters did when the ground began to shake this afternoon was not duck under their desks, but to turn to their smart phones. The 5.8 magnitude earthquake that was felt from Durham to Toronto was immediately documented through social media like Facebook and Twitter.

It was an interesting coincidence for Stacy Elmer. She’s a special assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), a division of the department of Health and Human Services created in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Just yesterday, ASPR launched Elmer’s idea: the “Lifeline Facebook App Challenge” a contest for creative technology developers that will “provide actionable steps for Facebook users to increase their own personal preparedness and strengthen connections within their social networks for the sake of personal preparedness and community resilience.”

The competition will run till the end of hurricane season on Nov. 4. No word on what a Facebook public health application might look like, but the ideal, according to the HHS website, would include a method for users to identify three people as ‘lifelines’ or emergency contacts. It would also create and share personal preparedness plans, be mobile-device ready, and incorporate a Geographic Information System (GIS) for locating or “tagging.” No mention of batteries or bottled water.

Elmer noticed that during the aftermath of recent disasters, people were turning more to websites like Facebook rather than calling people on their cell phones. “I thought about how we can leverage that kind of behavior,” she said. The idea is to reduce pressure on jammed phone lines, since people would use social media sites to reconnect in the event of an emergency.

The HHS Assistant Secretary for ASPR, Dr. Nicole Lurie, said this competition was a great way for HHS to take advantage of emerging social media. “One of the things that is fundamental to a community’s resilience is its connections between people,” she said. “In the end it’s going to be friends and neighbors who are going to help each other out in an emergency situation.”

One Response to “HHS Sponsors Contest To Develop Emergency Public Health Facebook Apps”

  1. Personally I think HHS is a bit of limits with this and what about privacy and can you put Facebook and privacy in the same sentence:) What is this was a riot? Would we want to be connecting people as some in the UK went to jail for abusing Facebook, so with the level of abuse we have out there, is this worth it? I think this requires a re-think and again if we had more executives with a tiny bit of Health IT background stuff like this would not surface as often as all the potential pitfalls would have been analyzed up front.

    You do have to remember they sell data over there too so would this lead to a deluge of ads tailored for whatever the emergency was? Earthquake today showed value of Twitter and what everyone used. I personally shut off the Facebook app as it took too much of my time with all kinds of people reaching out that i didn’t have time for and it was mess as those who tagged me in conversations didn’t know how to take me out either, so again I somewhat chuckle as the normal user is not into configurations for the most part either and how many have not unchecked the facial recognition.

    HHS has a bee in their bonnet here and should really perhaps use some biz modeling software or something like Recorded Future that Google and the CIA (and have invested in) use to project so they can see unintended consequences before acting. That’s why we have it today and the next step is to get folks to use more of the capabilities for decision making for better decisions. It may not lead to a perfect decision but it could point out some things they had not thought about beforehand. With current day events, this looks like many were maybe confused? Again, the other folks will abuse and we can’t lose sight of that. Google did see that with facial recognition and chose not to make it available.