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Health Data Isn’t Just for Hospitals

How planners in Oregon and Kentucky use smartphones to collect valuable information.

With wristbands that monitor heart rate and mobile apps that map jogging circuits, a growing number of Americans are using smartphones to measure their physical activity in facts and figures. These health and fitness apps collect personal data on exercise habits and remove the usual layer of guesswork in individualized fitness programs by delivering feedback to the user in real time.

At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that more than half of all Americans struggle with obesity, heart disease and other chronic health conditions, often due to unhealthy lifestyles. In some cities and states, however, planners are taking direct action against these public health concerns — and using data generated by mobile devices to do so.

Oregon’s Department of Transportation (ODOT) has turned to Strava, a popular fitness app, to better understand the behavior of the state’s runners and cyclists. This app tracks when, where, and most importantly, how runners run and cyclists ride, tracing their routes with the phone’s GPS. State planners, who paid $20,000 for one year of access to the maps this data generates, use the locational information to determine the effectiveness of current bike paths and decide where new ones could be built. ODOT already has put Strava data to use, analyzing cyclists’ speed on the state’s highways. They determined that rumble strips — designed to keep vehicle drivers alert — were a source of danger for cyclists, and took this into account in their placement of new ones. Strava — which, according to the company, collects 2.5 million GPS-tracked activities per week — offers an invaluable set of data to planners who would otherwise have few analytical tools to quantify pedestrian and cyclist behavior.

Louisville, Ky., has a large population of individuals with breathing disorders such as asthma and COPD. To combat the problem, in May 2012, the city partnered with Propeller Health to distribute 500 smart inhalers to asthmatic residents. When the devices were used, they sent information on their place and the time to both the patient’s physician and city officials, who used the data to generate “heat maps” of emergency asthma attacks. With the help of data analysts at IBM, public health officials compared the trends against a variety of potential causes — including air quality, pollen outbreaks and traffic congestion — to strategize interventions in the most at-risk areas. Today, the project continues. The city plans to deploy bike-mounted sensors to monitor air quality along routes that are frequented by children during the summer.

In June, I spoke at The Washington Post’s Health Beyond Health Care panel. It was clear, among this interdisciplinary group of doctors, academics, politicians and architects, that public health should include not just hospitals and medicine, but also broad-scale health promotion and health planning. To this end, collecting health-related data directly from citizens not only serves as an effective way of gathering information; it also fosters a sense of civic participation at very little expense to those who generate it.

Usually health-related analytics stay within medicine. They originate from doctors, are filtered through hospitals and are distributed to health insurance companies. But health is shaped by the environment in which people live, work and play — the city — and it is therefore the city’s responsibility to address it.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America; The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance; and A New City O/S.