Calling Dr. Crowd

News outlets rely on the masses for public health stories

When we feel ourselves coming down with something, we look it up. If you type the words “I think I’m getting” into Google’s search box, the suggested next-word options are “sick,” “the flu,” and “a cold,” though these recommendations and their order can vary slightly. In 2008, Google put that search data to use with Google Flu Trends, which shows where clusters of influenza related search-engine-action are happening on a map. Flu Trends can spot outbreaks one or two weeks before official Center for Disease Control data simply because people tend to turn to the web before a doctor. Earlier this year, Google used the same method to launch Dengue Trends.

Crowdsourcing, whether through analyzing search data or collecting bits of information from a bunch of individuals, has become an incredibly useful and eclectic tool for public health reporting. It helps reporters spot trends, validate theories, and find stories that might otherwise be missed. The method is not flawless or even rigorously scientific, of course. For example, a couple of blogs have used Google analyses to show where “bed bugs” searches have spiked regionally, but they haven’t proved to be reliable predictors of actual infestations. Still, it’s another tool in the public health reporter’s box.

Taking a look at not only where people are searching for terms, but how the search is framed, can also generate insights. “How are Americans responding to their weight? The answer to this question may be found by analyzing Google’s search data,” Business Insider’s Greg Voakes recently posited. His analysis revealed that more than 50 percent of weight-related keywords referred to losing weight “fast” or “quick,” and he cautioned readers about the risks of crash dieting.

Other services, like Sickweather, use word data to track illnesses. Mining social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, the company reportedly had encouraging results when frequency of the word “cough” spiked in Algonquin, Illinois and Milwaukee, Wisconsin one month before whooping cough outbreaks happened in both areas this fall. But the site has had to be careful with data collection. Use of the word “fever” had to be separated from any post that also contained the word “Bieber,” to close the gap between actual fevers and those induced by the teen idol.

Traditional methods of crowdsourcing, which require active collaboration, have been used to report on public health issues as well, particularly in cases of environmental dangers. Following the destruction of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March, there was a demand for information about where dispersed pockets of radiation were located. Official information was scarce and slow to be released. A group called Safecast emerged to fill the void. They handed out Geiger counters to Japanese citizens so they could measure and submit radiation levels to a website. Safecast then used the data to construct a map of radiation levels across the country.

Such techniques are equally useful at the community level. Take southwest Detroit, where asthma rates are three times the rate of the rest of Michigan. Residents had long blamed the semi-trucks that frequented neighborhood streets. Community members and employees from Public Radio International and WDET Detroit Public Radio distributed flyers in spring of 2010, asking the community to send the text message “TRUCK,” along with their location, when they saw the vehicles on neighborhood streets. Thirty people sent a total of seventy texts, and some members of the community documented the trucks in more traditional ways; one married couple wrote down when trucks came down their street, and counted 470 times over four months. Another woman showed a reporter hundreds of photos she’d taken.

When plugged into a map the data suggested what residents had long suspected—that the roughly 10,000 trucks crossing the Ambassador Bridge—which connects Detroit to Ontario, Canada and is the busiest border crossing in North America—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. The series led to a donation from the Detroit International Bridge Company, which owns Ambassador Bridge, of over $200,000 to open a health center in the community.

The crowdsourcing in southwest Detroit was done using a platform called Mobile Commons in collaboration with the Public Insight Network. PIN is made up of sixty newsroom partners, from The Washington Post to WNYC, and has a database of 130,000 people. These individuals sign up as contacts for stories, often recruited to the network by a local media outlet that’s partnered with PIN. Linda Fantin, the Director of Network Journalism and Innovation at American Public Media, which PIN is a part of, says their network has surfaced sources for a variety of stories about community health concerns.

“Public health is an area where you need the help of the community to understand what’s going on,” says Fantin.

The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) used PIN for a series on coal ash, a byproduct of coal-burning plants. It is often used in construction and infrastructure projects, but critics fear that toxic elements in the ash could leak into the groundwater. CPI wrote to network members located in zip codes near coal ash deposits and found people who became sources for a couple of the stories it did on the subject in late 2010. The amount of people eager to tell their experiences about living near coal ash sites was so high that CPI enlisted help from the Center for Investigative Reporting to pursue some of the leads. CIR used some of the sources from PIN in its film on the clean energy industry, “Dirty Business.”

Crowdsourcing is about more than health impacts. At Clear Health Costs founder Jeanne Pinder is attempting to bring specific information on prices to an industry that is notoriously opaque. She uses government databases and cold calls for a lot of the information, but relies on crowdsourcing to document the disparities in birth control prices in New York City, where one brand can range from $17 to $50, depending on the pharmacy. This was the first crowdsourcing project done by Clear Health Costs, but Pinder says she has plans in the works to use it for other research.

“There’s things that journalists know that the crowd doesn’t, and things that the crowd knows that we as journalists don’t know,” says Pinder. “Putting the two things together makes a powerful combination.”

Combining the crowd’s knowledge with reportorial skill is the best way of offsetting the kinks in the crowdsourcing method. Heaps of anecdotes, mistaken correlations, and even false positives can happen without a journalist to check leads and explain conclusions. As with all tools, it’s best to know its limitations before using.

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , , ,