Harnessing Open Data: Illinois’ Public Health Datapalooza App Challenge

Looking for a mental health clinic?  Curious about the number of teen pregnancies in your county?  Wondering where the measles might strike next?  In Illinois, there’s an app for that.  The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) recently announced the winners of the Illinois Public Health Datapalooza Challenge, which solicited entries for the creation of apps or maps that help make publicly available data readily accessible, or “open.”  The contest was co-sponsored by Health Data Consortium, IDPH, the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Socrata, ESRI, 1871, and the Smart Chicago Collaborative.


Chris Gansen, a software engineer, and Melissa Buenger, a student with a background in public policy and public health, won the contest for creating HealthNear.Me, an app accessible via the internet with a text-only option.  The two utilized the 10 data sets available at www.data.illinois.gov–IDPH Hospital Directory, Community Service Centers, Condom Distribution Sites, Cooling Centers, Licensed Substance Abuse Providers, Mental Health Clinics, Senior Centers, STI Specialty Clinic, Warming Centers and WIC Clinics.  Users simply select one of the categories, type in a street address, and select a distance, e.g. within one mile, and are provided with the address, phone number, and hours of facilities that meet those criteria.  Users who select a text-only option can text their information to a particular number and receive a text with facility information, instead.

In an interview recorded on WBEZ, Buenger expressed hope that, in addition to benefitting individuals, the app could assist an audience of case workers and other professionals and volunteers who help connect clients with facilities that can treat their immediate health care needs.  She’d like to reach out to those organizations to find out whether the app is useful and determine if additional data sets can be added to assist them.  Gansen emphasized that he and Buenger used an open sourced and published code so that other cities with similar data and formats could use it to establish a similar service.  Although the two do not have plans to collaborate on apps in the future, Buenger suggested that apps aiding people in finding health care coverage, such as an app connecting them to ACA health care navigators, could be helpful.

Second place in the competition went to the Illinois Teen Pregnancy and STI Hot Spot Detector Map app, which includes information about the counties where sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and teen pregnancies are most prevalent.  Drawing on data from IDPH STI data by county from 2008-2012, the app provides information about gonorrhea, chlamydia, and early syphilis, as well as information about teen pregnancies based on 2009-2009 data.  It also provides the location of condom distribution sites, STI specialty centers, and pregnancy termination centers.  An award was also given to the creators of Measles Then and Now In Illinois, an app that provides a history of measles outbreaks and a record of recent vaccinations to help predict future outbreaks.

Open Data

The push for open data has increased rapidly in recent years. The federal Health Data Initiative (HDI), housed at HealthData.gov, is HHS’ effort to make its data resources available to the public.  Its mission is to “improve health, healthcare, and the delivery of human services by harnessing the  power of data and fostering a culture of innovative uses of data in public and  private sector institutions, communities, research groups and policy making  arenas.”  In 2010, 30 data sets were available; that number is now closer to 1,000, and includes a broad array of information, including FDA recalls, CDC emergency text messages, uninsured young adults by county, and information as specific as the results of an “Examination of the Accuracy of Coding Hospital-Acquired Pressure Ulcer Stages.”

Health Data Consortium, whose goal is facilitate the release of open data and to  promote innovation, is a collaboration of government, non-profit, and private sector organizations.  It hosts an annual Health Datapalooza™ to bring together practitioners, technologists and policy makers develop new ways to help residents use data to improve their health.  It has been encouraging the states to do the same and helped to sponsor Illinois’ first ever Public Health Datapalooza.  In kicking off event, the Consortium’s CEO Dwayne Spradlin noted that “Illinois and the region are on the leading edge in a number of areas.”

The results are promising.  Hadlin was “impressed with the quality of the submissions.”  According to IDPH Director LaMar Hasbrouck,  “IDPH will continue to find innovative ways to work with health data and further Governor Pat Quinn’s commitment to improving health outcomes and access to health care in Illinois.”