How to find your nearest lifesaver

It’s hard to imagine a more concrete use of mobile health technology than Raina Merchant’s MyHeartMap Challenge.

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 2.37.21 PMWorking with a group of students at Penn Medicine, Merchant, an emergency medicine doctor with a keen interest on how crowdsourcing can further solutions in medicine, developed an app for citizen sleuths to mark the locations of AEDs (Automated External Defibrillators) in Philadelphia County.  A mobile-compatible website allows users to find the AED nearest them.

To date, there is no universal database showing where to find the devices, which can help jump start a heart that’s been hobbled by cardiac arrest. Showing a keen knowledge of human motivation, Merchant made the search into a contest with cash prizes of up to $10,000. Participants could also win $50 for spotting a “golden” AED, a la eggs or Willie Wonka’s Tickets.

The Challengers mapped some 9,000 AEDs in Pennsylvania alone, a total Merchant hopes to expand nationally. To her surprise, the contest winners weren’t 20-somethings, but a pair of determined searchers over the age of 40.

“We were thrilled that we could provide a map to life-saving devices that people otherwise may have walked right by,” Merchant says.

Merchant got the idea from DARPA’s Red Balloon Challenge, which challenged participants to find 10 red weather balloons released in the U.S.  An M.I.T. Media Lab team won – natch — finding all ten balloons in just under nine hours using social network technology.

The Penn Social Media Lab team at 30th Street Station in Philadephia. Dr. Merchant is at left, in gray.
The Penn Social Media Lab team at 30th Street Station in Philadephia. Dr. Merchant is at left, in gray.

As the MyHeartMap project progressed, a Philadelphia councilwoman had an idea: Couldn’t the AEDs be designed to be more memorable and easier to spot? Hence the Penn Defibrillator Design Challenge. A web platform asks users to contribute designs, and the first winner has been installed in the city’s 30th Street Station.

MyHeartMap is one of many projects for Merchant, who is the Director of the Social Media Lab at the Penn Center for Health Care Innovation, established in July of 2013.  The lab conducts and publishes research about the intersection of health and local and social media, “culling through billions of Tweets,” as Merchant explains it, to understand how Twitter can better cardiovascular health with prompts on resuscitation, critical care, and public health policy.  Its secondary goal is to develop new digital tools for public health.

“We’re exploring, in a rigorous academic way, what we can learn about devices like Fitbits and other wearable devices and how we can measure them. We think about how physicians can be aware of the latest tools on the market, and how they should talk to their patients about them,” Merchant says.

“We’re encouraging citizen scientists to think about different ways to take on big problems. Traditionally, as physicians, we take a passive approach to how we study things, but we’ve had a lot of success in getting the public to help with the process.  We think we can come up with better results working with patients and publics than with a more insulated methodology,” she says.  (Merchant, along with other special guests, spoke more about crowdsourcing research at last week’s Great Challenges Hangout on Medical Innovation. Click here to watch the video.)

While an academic setting for any kind of mHealth venture is atypical, Merchant says it allows for great multidisciplinary interaction between physicians, schools of business, computer engineering, design and medicine, as well as inter-generational wisdom sharing.

“Everybody has a say at the table. It’s great when the junior people tell the seniors how things really work on Twitter,” she says.

— Stacy Lu