HHS Sponsors Contest To Develop Emergency Public Health Facebook Apps

UPDATED at 3:52 p.m. — After the Virginia earthquake.

Photo by Florian via Flickr

The first thing East Coasters did when the ground began to shake this afternoon was not duck under their desks, but to turn to their smart phones. The 5.8 magnitude earthquake that was felt from Durham to Toronto was immediately documented through social media like Facebook and Twitter.

It was an interesting coincidence for Stacy Elmer. She’s a special assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), a division of the department of Health and Human Services created in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Just yesterday, ASPR launched Elmer’s idea: the “Lifeline Facebook App Challenge” a contest for creative technology developers that will “provide actionable steps for Facebook users to increase their own personal preparedness and strengthen connections within their social networks for the sake of personal preparedness and community resilience.”

The competition will run till the end of hurricane season on Nov. 4. No word on what a Facebook public health application might look like, but the ideal, according to the HHS website, would include a method for users to identify three people as ‘lifelines’ or emergency contacts. It would also create and share personal preparedness plans, be mobile-device ready, and incorporate a Geographic Information System (GIS) for locating or “tagging.” No mention of batteries or bottled water.

Elmer noticed that during the aftermath of recent disasters, people were turning more to websites like Facebook rather than calling people on their cell phones. “I thought about how we can leverage that kind of behavior,” she said. The idea is to reduce pressure on jammed phone lines, since people would use social media sites to reconnect in the event of an emergency.

The HHS Assistant Secretary for ASPR, Dr. Nicole Lurie, said this competition was a great way for HHS to take advantage of emerging social media. “One of the things that is fundamental to a community’s resilience is its connections between people,” she said. “In the end it’s going to be friends and neighbors who are going to help each other out in an emergency situation.”