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How Open Source Civic Technology Helped Flu Vaccinations Go Viral

BY Sam Roudman | Tuesday, January 15 2013

Photo: rocknroll_guitar / Flickr

In the middle of what might be the worst flu season in a decade, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino declared a public health emergency — and civic hackers found a way to help the cause.

With help from Code for America volunteers, the Boston Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics was able to repurpose a Chicago app that maps free vaccination locations in little more than a day, just in time for a weekend vaccination campaign at 24 locations. The app's journey from Chicago to Boston is a model of intra-civic partnership.

The app dates back to October, when it was developed by web developer Tom Kompare after he attended a Chicago OpenGov meetup where representatives from the city discussed ways they'd like to see their data used. After hearing about data listing where the city was providing flu vaccination, he decided to take a stab at making an app that lists the locations, and provides driving directions.

"In two days I put up a proof of concept," says Kompare. Within a week he was meeting with the Chicago Department of Public Health to refine the project, which is up at GitHub. Chicago integrated the app onto their site in early November.

"I was not expecting the city of Chicago to integrate with their website," says Kompare. "At most I thought they'd say 'Hey, look over here,' and point to my website."

Flash forward two months to Boston, after Menino declared a public health emergency, and Kompare's app came to mind for Harlan Weber.

As the Boston Brigade Captain for Code for America, Weber is a volunteer leader in civic hacking for his city. After looking at the Boston Public Health Commission's listing for free vaccinations, he says, "I kind of felt like it wasn't doing the best job it could be."

He remembered a conference call where the Chicago CfA Brigade Captain, Christopher Whitaker, had mentioned Kompare's flu vaccination app. He decided to get in touch.

At 10 a.m. last Thursday, Weber emailed Whitaker to ask how Boston could get ahold of the app. Whitaker linked him to Kompare and Kompare sent the link to the GitHub repository.

"Everything snowballed from there," says Whitaker.

Weber got in touch with the Boston Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics, whose bosses are on the steering committee of the Boston's CfA Brigade.

"By the afternoon it was up to them," says Weber.

The staff at New Urban Mechanics in Boston entered data manually through a Google fusion table, and Friday morning handed it off to their tech evangelist and former CfA fellow Michael Evans.

"When I came into work on Friday, I thought we had maybe a day or two to do this," says Evans, "but the Mayor's office needed it done by noon." Since Boston's free flu vaccination campaign was happening on Saturday, "the application was only useful from Friday afternoon to end of day Saturday."

Evans went to the GitHub repository and changed the "Chicago specific bits, put in Boston specific bits," connected it to the fusion table, and deployed the app to Heroku, which Evans says was a time-saver.

"If I needed to install this on city I.T., there's no way, it would have taken a couple of days," he said.

After some testing with New Urban Mechanics Co-Chair Chris Osgood, the app was up and running by the afternoon.

A modest 890 unique users tested out the site, city officials say. For public health officials, that's better than zero.

"Any other avenue that there is to get the message out on flu shots, is one we should take advantage," says Nick Martin, director of communications for the Boston Public Health Commission.

According to Osgood, the New York City Public Advocate has expressed interest in repurposing the app yet again with big apple data.

Could Kompare's flu vaccination app could be a model for taking virus responses viral? Civic hackers like Weber hope so.

"We went from a quick email to a deployed app on city servers in 30 hours," he says. "Eight of those were sleeping time."

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