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Asthma alerts via social media just make sense

Submitted by on Monday, 4 May 2009 No Comment

Here’s a move that makes so much sense it’s stunning that more agencies aren’t considering it.

According to the Arizona Republic, health care professionals in that state are expanding their system of asthma alerts to include social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

The true beauty of the system isn’t that it will allow the information to reach  users no matter where they are via text messaging, keeping people with serious health problems alerted to changes during the day.

The amazing part is that officials plan to use highly localized data — information broken down to ZIP code – to alert patients when neighborhood meters detect upticks in pollution.

Just as in California, traditional readings in Arizona cover a wide area even though only small pockets might have problems.

And contrast the system Arizona’s planning to what’s in place in a few California districts.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District offers email alerts only, and you have to mouse around quite a bit to find them. Asthmatics who don’t know it’s there aren’t likely to stumble on the service. Hint: It’s under “information requests” and then “email lists” on the left side.

And many folks don’t know it’s there, which is a problem not only for individuals, but also for institutions such as day cares whose clientele is among vulnerable populations.

Sure, there are flags out at many schools in the district, but not everyone drives past a school every day. And the information’s updated only once a day – a lot can change twixt forecast and real time, particularly during hot summer days and forest fire season.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which covers greater Los Angeles, offers links to PDF maps that are so highly useful to mobile users. It appears that LA lets the feds handle its alerts.

Houston, another historic bad boy among the bad air set, is even worse, offering anyone who needs to breathe in that city a number they can call daily.

The implications of what Arizona’s planning extend far beyond asthma alerts.

Imagine a system that would let folks know if pollen counts are expected to be high, one commenter wrote at mashable.com. People could make sure they have needed medications at hand if the forecast is bad.

What if, instead of asking residents to check online maps, governments could let people living in flood-prone areas register for alerts tied to gauge readings that would let them know if they’re at risk. And, no, it isn’t always obvious: Things upstream can roll down hill more quickly than the eye can catch it sometimes.

Traffic tying up a morning commute? Blast out an alert urging drivers to take an alternate route. Suggest an alternate route. Police agencies already compile the information, though many agencies refuse to let go of their death grips on electronic data – it’s just a matter of getting it to the phones of people who need it when they need it.

Since text messaging costs carriers nothing to provide, I’m sure they’d all be willing to let such alerts go through for free, as a public service.

OK, now I’m fantasizing, but there’s no harm in asking and humiliating providers when they refuse. A smart provider would even use it as a marketing tool: Sign a contract with We Rip You Off Less Teleco and we’ll give you free emergency alerts.

For all the criticism social media get from those who don’t understand it, there is true value and power in modern tools and technology. Particularly when the tools are used to get real-time information to people who need it as quickly as possible.

Officials in Arizona are adapting a network created in Italy to offer their real-time localized information. They hope to have it ready in 2012.

That puts them easily three years ahead of at least two California districts and light years ahead of Houston.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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