Crowdsourced Health Reports Make a Difference in Detroit


More and more, the way we talk about journalism is changing. Traditional print media are being joined by Google searches, whistle-blowing bloggers, and something near and dear to our hearts at Mobile Commons: crowdsourcing.

The Columbia Journalism review touches on some of these new frontiers in an article called “Calling Dr. Crowd” about the ways crowdsourcing is changing health information.  Along with some fascinating discussion of how Google searches can predict disease outbreaks, the article explains how a recent Mobile Commons crowdsourcing project helped a Detroit neighborhood with unusually high asthma rates. Heavy truck traffic was the suspected cause, so WDET Detroit Public Radio asked people to text in “TRUCK” whenever they saw a semi.

When plugged into a map the data suggested what residents had long suspected—that the roughly 10,000 trucks crossing the Ambassador Bridge… were likely contributing to the area’s disproportionately high asthma rate, amongst other quality of life issues. Moreover, when the crowdsourced map was compared to a map of legal truck routes, it revealed that a lot of drivers were taking unsanctioned shortcuts through area neighborhoods.

Crowdsourcing projects like these put the power in the hands of the people who are most affected by a problem. It’s been a growing trend lately, as when New York and Chicago residents texted in real data about the streets that hadn’t been cleared during a blizzard. And Detroit is not the only place text campaigns are helping keep people healthy. We’ve seen smoking quit rates double and vaccination rates increase with text message support, to name just a few examples.

Making information available to anyone, anywhere has always been one of the great advantages of mobile – and now the information is going both ways, making every cell phone owner into a journalist, and empowering residents to make a difference in their local communities..

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