Tag Archive for Health

Opinion: Can Google Analytics Replace Public Health Workers?

As big data becomes more sophisticated, the question about whether analytics tools — like those developed by Google — could someday replace data compiled by federal agencies.

A case in point is the Google Flu Trends website, which could someday become a suitable replacement for much of the work now performed by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

That day, however, is not likely to come for a least a few years, according to a recent opinion article in the National Journal, although many agree there is great potential in such technology if it can be honed.

A comparison of Google’s flu trend graph and the CDC’s data shows a discrepancy in findings:

Google Flu Trends map
Google Flu Trends chart



CDC flu trends chart

While Google shows the current flu outbreak as being the worst of the past six years, the Center for Disease Control shows that the current outbreak is bad, but not as bad as outbreaks of at least two years past. Furthermore, the CDC graph shows that the outbreak is already on the decline. The discrepancy can be accounted for if one looks at the simplistic nature of Google’s data, according to the article.

The CDC uses a combination of data: reports of sickness across many disease control centers along with tweaks made by public health experts with years of experience. Google’s data is based off of search results that do their best to filter out search noise, but with limited success. The things that’s missing, according to the article? The human factor. And Google admits the tool is still in an early phase of development; it has a ways to go before it can compete with human data analysis.

“We intend to update our model each year with the latest sentinel provider [influenza-like illness] data, obtaining a better fit and adjusting as online health-seeking behavior evolves over time,” Matt Mohebbi, a Google software engineer recently wrote for Forbes. “With respect to the current flu season, it’s still too early to tell how the model is performing.”

But in the future, we could see a combination of the two, said Lynnette Brammer, a flu epidemiologist with the CDC. While there may never be a substitute for human decision-making, technology could save public heath workers a lot of time, she said. “We want the data transmission to be as easy for the people providing it to us as possible,” she said. “But the thing we don’t want is to lose the connection we have with those people. Even if you have really good data coming in, you’re always going to have questions about what it means.”

When comparing the two systems, one primarily run by people and the other by a machine, it comes down to understanding complexity. “It’s really hard, certainly for us at CDC, to understand what’s causing that change,” Brammer said. “They’re seeing pretty much record levels of influenza-like illness. And while ours are high, they’re not at historical limits by any means. We just have a lot more flexibility and ability to track down and ask additional questions and find the answers to those questions.”

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How Flu-Related Web Apps Help Protect Citizen Health

The annual flu pandemic usually peaks each January and February, and 2013 is no exception. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 22,048 flu cases from Sept. 30, 2012 through that year’s end, and as of Jan. 9, 2013, more than 40 states experienced widespread flu infection.

Right now, it’s handy for public health officials to know about Web apps that can help citizens deal with the flu if their areas are hit. Earlier this month, Emergency Management magazine reported on four online tools that track the flu, and Government Technology reviewed two of them, Google Flu Trends and Flu Near You, and how they educate citizens about influenza and its spread.

Users visit the Google Flu Trends Web application to see a map of Google’s estimates on what areas of the world have the most flu sufferers. Google’s engineers theorize that flu sufferers are many of the same people who search for flu-related terms on Google. Consequently, Google staff estimate where the flu strikes strongest by taking the company’s own internal data on searches for flu terms and comparing it with official flu symptom data from organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Flu Near You allows users to fill out an online form about their flu symptoms, and the results populate an interactive map on the homepage. The data requested includes symptoms experienced and whether the user has been vaccinated yet. The website also discloses how many people in each state filled out the form, and users can see where local vaccination centers are. The site was created by a collaboration between Boston Children’s Hospital, the Skoll Global Health Fund and the American Public Health Association.

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San Francisco Posts Restaurant Health Inspection Data on Yelp

In an effort to improve public health and data transparency, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee announced on Thursday, Jan. 17, a partnership with Yelp, a site that connects people with local businesses and restaurants. The goal? To link the city’s restaurant health score data with the popular restaurant review website — and to standardize health score data nationwide.

Yelp is currently doing a limited release, so some San Francisco restaurants already have their city health inspection score listed in their Yelp review. On Korean restaurant Cocobang’s Yelp page, for instance, a government health score of 92 out of 100 from Nov. 12, 2012, is visible above the hours of operation, as is a link to the full restaurant inspection report. 

And all San Francisco restaurants will have their health scores listed in the next couple of weeks, said Jay Nath, the city’s Chief Innovation Officer. Data from New York City and Philadelphia also is expected in coming weeks, according to a press release from Lee’s office.

“They want to make sure they do it right,” Nath said, adding that the past year was spent getting the company comfortable with investing in the idea. “That sometimes take time, right? [Yelp] has a lot of different directions that they’re thinking about, and for this to filter up and be embraced is a recognition on their part of how much impact it can make and how they can serve their customers better.”

For Lee, this new partnership with Yelp is another significant step in the open data movement. “By making often hard-to-find government information more widely available to innovative companies like Yelp, we can make government more transparent and improve public health outcomes for our residents through the power of technology,” he said in a prepared statement.

Other cities can pledge to implement the LIVES standard on foodinspectiondata.us, which is part of the Code for America Peer Network.

Doing so, said San Francisco Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath, doesn’t require a tremendous investment.

“I think that most cities have this information,” he said. “They have inspections throughout their cities, they are throwing them in a database, and it’s really just constructing a report that pushes the information out.” 

And when a group of cities are aware of what one another’s doing, said Code for America Founder and Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka, “you can get so much more done by doing things together — and this is really a great example of that. Getting as many cities as possible to start publishing that food inspection data in that format – it’s a virtuous cycle.”

And the more platforms like Yelp are interested in publishing the data, Pahlka added, the more the cities are interested in publishing and providing in the standardized format. “And then the more cities that are providing it, additional platforms that then see it as valuable to integrate into their site or into their services, because it’s work that’s done not by a city necessarily but one change – one architectural change – and then you can have more and more of that data available to people. So the network plays a critical role in getting that virtuous cycle going.”

Image courtesy of foodinspectiondata.us/ Code for America

At the plan’s core is the creation of a new national open data standard called the Local Inspector Value-Entry Specification (LIVES), which would enable any city to voluntarily share restaurant inspections scores on Yelp or other websites to make that data more transparent.

Code for America was originally approached to spread the word about LIVES and the Yelp integration, but  Founder and Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka said the organization wanted to work with the network of cities with which it has relationships “to make this not just a New York and San Francisco thing, but something that’s available in Yelp nationally,” she said.

And Code for America’s interest isn’t just in having the information on Yelp. Pahlka said her organization wanted to make the data available “wherever consumers are making decisions about where to eat, because it’s pretty relevant information. So the fact that they [San Francisco] had done this as a data standard that other cities can publish to and that other platforms can then consume is fantastic.” 

Nath said the new LIVES data standards are similar to transit data standards developed by Google and the city of Portland, Ore., called  General Transit Format Specifications. These standards have enabled apps in multiple cities that allow users to map trips using public transit.

“Those apps would not be possible without this data standard,” Nath said. “That’s a really important piece of working toward the specification; it allows for anyone to utlize this information, and it makes it much easier to take this information and make it much more accessible.”

Maintaining open data on restaurant inspections is beneficial for consumers in numerous ways, according to Code for America. When the data is more accessible and user friendly, consumers can make more informed decisions based on how well a restaurant is adhering to food safety regulations. Opening up the data through Yelp can also help promote public health. Having that accountability should motivate and encourage restaurants to aim for better inspection ratings.

“Looking at the [Los Angeles] study that demonstrated a reduction in food-borne ilnesses associated with greater access to health inspection scores, in addition to the median score being raised — I think it’s really interesting to think about how access to information can change behavior and can produce better results,” Nath said.

The other benefit Nath says he hopes to see is that this partnership starts a culture change — that other cities recognize the value of data and of working together as cities to determine how to establish standards and interoperability.

“So it’s not just a conversation with people who are technical,” he said. “But mayors can now understand that data is of great importance, that we’re stewards of this really imprtant asset and that we need to work together as mayors and cities to standardize it and put it out there to provide better services for our constituents and citizens.”

Pahlka echoed that sentiment. “I think that data standards provide an opportunity for collaboration that’s very, very lightweight,” she said. “So when you have a network of cities that are aware of what each other’s doing, and then of course that happens through the Code for America Peer Network, it also happens through publications and just the general flow of knowledge.”

Photo via Jorg Hackemann / Shutterstock.com

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HHS Rebrands Health Exchanges as ‘Marketplaces’

As part of its campaign to increase public awareness about the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) introduced some new terminology Wednesday: the entities formerly known as ‘health insurance exchanges’ — websites similar to Expedia or Orbitz where people can purchase health coverage — will now be called ‘health insurance marketplaces.’

It’s a subtle distinction, but one that could be key for branding purposes. Exchange is a wonky term, while marketplace will likely be more intuitive for the general public. To illustrate that point, Governing already commonly described the exchanges as “insurance marketplaces,” as did most other media outlets.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius made the transition official in a blog post published Wednesday, which coincided with a total relaunch of HealthCare.gov, the Obama administration’s online home for the ACA.

“Over the last two years we’ve worked closely with states to begin building their health insurance marketplaces, also known as exchanges…,” Sebelius wrote.

An HHS official told Governing that the department had begun using ‘marketplace’ in place of ‘exchange’ informally in recent months, and Wednesday’s announcement simply finalized the change.

“We felt simpler was better,”Jason Young, HHS deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, told USA Today in a story on the new branding campaign.

HHS could end up running exchanges in as many as 30 states in 2014, which could explain the renewed focus on public relations. So far, 17 states have committed to a state-run exchange, and two others will partner with the federal government for an exchange.

States have until Feb. 15 to decide if they want a partnership exchange. For those that don’t, HHS will be responsible for the whole operation, including public outreach.

Image via iStockphoto

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Space Satellite Connects Rural Health Clinics to Broadband

To connect mobile health units in the hills of rural New England with broadband access, policymakers are looking up — all the way to space. In the next few months, roaming trailers that serve rural communities and ships that double as health clinics for Maine’s outer islands will be equipped with the gear necessary to draw broadband Internet from a satellite powered by Hughes Network Systems. The initiative is being led by the New England Telehealth Consortium, a federally funded group of health care providers dedicated in part to improving rural health care access. The consortium’s efforts also focus on building new broadband infrastructure, but the mobile units that serve many of the hard-to-reach communities in the area would never be able to plug into the grid. Instead, they’ll transmit data through the Hughes Spaceway 3 broadband satellite, floating 22,300 miles above the Earth. It will allow those providers to use remote monitoring, electronic health records and more in a way that they never could with their current technology.

“People will sometimes say: ‘Well, those are just going to be unserved areas,” says Tony Bardo, vice president for government solutions at Hughes. “With satellites, there are no unserved areas. We can serve wherever you can see the southern sky.”

The 10-year, $500,000 project — which got some start-up funding from the states — will serve mobile units reaching more than 400 sites and 2.5 million patients in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. And it could be the first of many, as rural connectivity is continually integrated into the health care reform conversation. In fact, the FCC announced last week that it would be setting some of its $400 million in recently announced rural health funding for satellite projects specifically.

This story was originally published on GOVERNING.com

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