Foodborne Chicago is an amazing initiative by the Chicago Department of Health to track food poisoning in the city using social media. Most foodborne illness is not reported to the public health department or traced back to the source because diarrheal illness is common and usually gets better without treatment. This makes it hard to identify restaurants or foods that are contaminated, so people continue to eat them and get sick.
The Chicago Department of Health partnered with a civic hacking organization, Smart Chicago Collaborative, to develop a set of online tools to collect reports of food poisoning. People who have fallen sick can go to the Foodborne Chicago website to submit a report. But what's even cooler is the team has set up a Twitter app to scan for people in Chicago complaining of food poisoning symptoms.
Epidemiologists then review the tweets and contact the sick people directly with a link to the online form submission. The Foodborne Chicago site reports that it has classified almost 4,000 tweets and replied to nearly 500 Chicagoans in the quest for better food safety. The website has collected almost 1,300 total reports of foodborne illness.
I love that this project uses technology to bring public health professionals closer to the community they serve. Most residents don't know to alert their local health departments about foodborne illness. In fact, I'd venture a guess that most people barely think about the role the health department plays in their lives at all. The Foodborne Chicago helps epidemiologist to identify and reach out to people who have important information about the health of their community.
This is the kind of project that makes me passionate about teaching Python instead of SAS or another stats-only language. Fluency in a general purpose language like Python lets you go beyond data analysis (though I love that to) to creating websites, apps, bots, and a whole range of tools to improve public health. I see this as the future of public health, and it's what will make epidemiology great again.
Epidemiologists changing the future of public health.