Earlier this month in honor of National Public Health Week, President Obama issued a proclamation to recognize the value of public health workers and initiatives around the world. His statement highlighted a number of recent advances, including: expanding health coverage available to Americans through the Affordable Care Act, addressing the health impacts of climate change, and coordinating international efforts to mitigate infectious disease outbreaks. He spoke of the need for diverse stakeholders to contribute to public health efforts, calling on “all citizens, government agencies, private businesses, non-profit organizations, and other groups to join in activities and take action to improve the health of our Nation.”
Citizens have always played a particularly important role in promoting health in communities. With the growth of digital tools and smartphone ownership, citizens now have technology in their hands that allows them to collect health data, experiment, learn, and discover new insights and trends about their individual health, and at the same time expand the understanding of their community’s health. New technology such as mobile health apps, wearable devices, and medical sensors offer new ways to receive self-management support and education outside of the doctor’s office, track symptoms, and share health data. These tools have begun to transform how patients can participate as active citizen scientists to promote their own health and support larger public health efforts.
In a recent article in Sustain Magazine, we wrote about the AIR Louisville program, a community-based citizen science asthma collaborative that’s developing a digital asthma surveillance system in Louisville, Kentucky. Hundreds of local citizens have been equipped with Propeller sensors to collect real-time data on their inhaler use. They also have access to their data in digital platforms, which promote adherence to daily controller medications and provide personalized guidance and education. Citizens not only benefit from their own data collection to support self-management, but also can share their data to identify community level trends about the asthma burden and to inform local public health interventions and policy decision-making.
As key stakeholders in this project, local government leaders are using these citizen-generated data in anonymized format to identify hotspots of asthma across the region and to understand how environmental drivers are influencing these hotspots. They want to know where to focus their intervention efforts in order to have the most meaningful impact on the asthma burden in their community, asking questions like ‘How many asthma attacks could be avoided if we reduced emissions by 20% along this highway, or increased the tree canopy by 10% in this neighborhood?’ These citizen-generated data are playing an important role in expanding our understanding of social and environmental determinants of health and informing municipal decision-making to promote public health. Projects like AIR Louisville highlight what is possible when using digital tools to engage citizens, collect data, disseminate findings, and put those findings into meaningful next steps to support and strengthen public health.
As Greg Fischer, Mayor of Louisville, sees it:
“[AIR Louisville] is making public health resonate in our policy conversations. It’s citizen science. It’s about asthma, about air, but it’s also about rebuilding trust in government and that link to citizenship.”
Arming citizens with tools that not only provide valuable information for their own health, but also enable them to actively contribute to community health, strengthens the link between citizenship and policy action. This can be done at the local level, as in Louisville, and also at a national scale. Last year Propeller announced that it is building a National Asthma Risk Map for the United States using citizen-generated data, predictive spatial modeling techniques, and open government data resources, through which citizens can track how climate change may affect the frequency and severity of respiratory disease. This new source of real-time, passively collected data has the potential to revolutionize the way our country is able to conduct proactive prevention in our communities.
We are excited about the great work that is taking place with AIR Louisville program and we are thrilled about the insights we can learn from this work that will provide valuable information at the local level. We are only just beginning to see how citizen-driven health data collection can play a vital role in enhancing public health surveillance and help ensure the health and safety of all of our citizens. We look forward to sharing more about our journey taking action to support public health.