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The Department of Public Health’s Brave New World

cdphThe Chicago Department of Public Health has an array of new tools to fight public health maladies. Using social media sites, online search tools and smart phone applications, the department now has the ability to directly interact with the public as it provides services ranging from food borne illness prevention to free condom distribution.

The department has partnered with Smart Chicago, a collaborative founded by the city of Chicago and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, to develop its technology initiatives.

“I have always been interested in helping people connect with each other and their government,” said Smart Chicago’s executive director, Daniel X. O’Neil.

O’Neil said technology increases the department’s outreach and communication with the public. He credits the department’s commissioner, Dr. Bechara Choucair, for recognizing the benefits of technology.

“Dr. Choucair is an innovative commissioner,” said O’Neil.

In March 2013, the department and Smart Chicago launched a Twitter initiative called Foodborne Chicago, which searches Chicago Twitter feeds for mentions of food poisoning. FoodBorne tweets back, asking the food poisoning victim to visit the FoodBorne website and identify restaurants recently visited. These reports have resulted in 150 restaurant inspections,according to an April, 2014 department press release.

The initiative may feel invasive to those targeted says one privacy group.

David Maas, media relations coordinator and investigative researcher for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, thinks Twitter users will be surprised when their symptoms are displayed on FoodBorne’s Twitter feed. Maas views this as a teachable moment for social media users accustomed to sharing everything online.

“Maybe people need to have slightly better digital hygiene,” he said.

Maas, however, does not see any overarching privacy concerns since the user already put the tweet out in the “Twitterverse.” Foodborne’s privacy policy addresses matters of information sharing and storage by encrypting information shared by the user and not selling or sharing the user’s information with third parties, said Maas.

Maas would like to know how FoodBorne handles Freedoms of Information Act requests for reports submitted on Foodborne’s website, as that issue is not addressed in the privacy policy.

The department has also released a “Flu Clinic Finder” app, which directs users to health clinics based on zip codes and a “Back to School” immunization app. The “Back to School”app directs parents to events in their neighborhoods where children can receive free vaccinations.

Still in development is a sexual health app. The app, being developed in partnership with Microsoft, would give the current locations of free condoms and sexual health clinics.

While the app’s development cost may reach $1 million, Jamie Dircksen, the department’s deputy commissioner for performance and quality improvement, said the department is using its partnership with Microsoft and grants to fund the project, and hopes the Department will not have to pay any of the costs.

Dircksen spoke about the need for this app during the health department’s Aug. 20 meeting. Currently, the department has “a very static web page where people can go and it may not always be up to date,” she said.

Once released, the app should make it even easier for the public to receive the 8 million – 10 million free condoms dispensed every year by the department.

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