Today’s National Public Health Week theme is technology and public health. Our guest blog is from APHA member Raed Mansour, MS, director for the Office of Innovation at the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Some public health departments over the recent years have highlighted their innovative apps, predictive analytics and visualizations to improve public health. But emerging technologies — like smart cities, connected health, precision health and internet of things — will be necessary to shape the future of comprehensive public health solutions.

Raed Mansour

Raed Mansour, MS, is an APHA member and director for the Office of Innovation at the Chicago Department of Public Health.

If these technological developments aren’t familiar to you, or you’re unsure how they could work within public health, you’re not alone. While we can’t just code our way out of our public health challenges, how do we keep up with the continuously evolving technological landscape, let alone know how to implement these innovative technologies to transform public health?

The field of technological innovation in public health is in its early stages and it remains to be seen which tools are here to stay, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 10 Essential Public Health Services, which includes “research for new insights and innovative solutions to health problems,” holds us responsible to continually seek better solutions. The entire framework guided many transformative public health accomplishments like vaccinations, motor vehicle safety, tobacco control and public health preparedness and response, so we’re all used to innovation, but it does need to be defined.

The Public Health National Center for Innovation offers a guiding definition: “Public health innovation refers to the development of a new process, policy, product or program that increases quality, impact and efficiency.” There is a lot more to public health innovation, and the center is a robust resource that also provides a lot of inspiration to different types of innovations. The following are some strategies observed over the years that can offer insights to learn which technologies are available and how to use them in public health.

  • Community
    Creating a technology solution the community doesn’t need wastes a lot of time and resources. Technological innovations should help solve for an unmet need. The communities you serve can ensure whether or not a technology is complementary to existing solutions, and replace them entirely if necessary. Often times these are done through town halls, focus groups, surveys or open community advisory committees and either created by public health or another local organization. Members are representative of communities and can include residents, businesses, nonprofits, schools and health care. Communities are often the best resource for developing a proof-of-concept, prototyping and piloting technologies or designing better user experience and user interface testing.
  • Communities of practice
    A group of people sharing common interests to improve collective learning, in-person or virtually, is an opportunity to be exposed to new people and their methods and technologies, but not necessarily working in public health. They can be hosted by workspaces, businesses, academia, nonprofits or other government agencies. They can be local, like Chicago City Data Users Group, or national, like All In. Find ones that are open to the public and listen to what the group offers before soliciting help. You may be surprised to learn that they too have similar technological hurdles, including legal compliance and governance within antiquated and siloed IT infrastructures.
  • Idea challenges
    Hack-a-thons used to have the allure of crowdsourcing a technical solution to a specific problem quickly, but short-term fixes shouldn’t replace long-term needs, especially when sustaining these technologies is an afterthought. Enter idea challenges – where nothing is really built, but novel ideas are given a space to be heard, with the goal of receiving several possible solutions or spur further ideation after the challenge. Participate in or lead challenges like Chicago Health Solutions, which attracts diverse participation in both skills and community.
  • Sharing technology code
    Sharing best practices is not new in public health. From seminars to manuscripts, public health shares research readily, but when it comes to sharing technology, it is difficult to operationalize someone else’s technology from a white paper. Open source software sharing platforms, like GitHub, offer a site to create blueprints for your built technologies with the added power of providing transparency and the opportunity for peer review. By allowing all communities and organizations to view your open code, you open the chance for developers and programmers to improve, adapt or validate your software codes. These platforms can also be used to scan open projects to spur ideas and you do not need to be a developer or programmer to use them either. You will find several government agencies are starting to centralize and organize their code repositories like Code.gov and California Open Source Portal to make them easier to find and replicate.

For now, technological innovation and research to address emerging and long-standing public health issues is here to stay. There is a common theme across the strategies you may have noticed – maximizing community input with interdisciplinary skills. Most of these strategies point outward to find answers within the community to identify projects that prioritize equitable access to resources, opportunities and environments before any technology is developed. These types of strategies also provide opportunities for public health to create relationships and collaborate with non-traditional partners on technological innovations, while collectively addressing health equity and social responsibility for the communities in which we serve.