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How Technology Can Fight the Flu

Whether the 2013-14 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.
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This season, influenza activity started about four 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 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 website 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 went on to have an even broader impact -- beyond the borders of Chicago -- before the raging flu season had ended.

This was the trifecta:

1) It's vitally important: Information about where flu shot vaccinations are dispensed is vital for public health.

2) There's data: Flu shot distribution data is usually compiled by local public health officials -- albeit in widely differing formats.

3) It's easily displayed on the Internet: This information, flu shot locations and schedules, can be easily displayed via a website, mobile app, or even via SMS, and easily be integrated into a personal calendar or reminder app -- making this a solvable problem for a civic app.

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 get actually 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, Flu Shots -- which Kompare made freely available on the code sharing site GitHub -- was "forked" and implemented in Boston. Then in Philadelphia. And now in San Francisco. 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 how important it is for cities to open up their data.

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 consistency in the way the data was formatted in the place where data was available -- making it more timely and difficult for developers to implement the app it in their home town.

The lesson for municipal leaders was loud and clear: make it easier for civic app developers in different cities to implement an available tool by standardizing the way you collect and display data.

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 Brigade, which is now active in more than 30 cities in the U.S and internationally in Poland, Ireland, and Japan.

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 specifications and APIs. By standardizing data formats not just within cities, but across jurisdictions and municipalities, community members can "plug and play" civic apps built anywhere.

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, Ind.'suReport 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 spec, 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.

Whether the 2013-14 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.