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Chicago Department of Public Health Harnesses Computers, Data and Innovation to Tackle Vexing Public Health Problems


April 11, 2016

Dornsife School of Public Health students will be poised to lead in innovative, applied public health practice by pairing their public health experience with open data, code and algorithms and tech partnerships, according to Raed Mansour, Innovation Projects Lead at the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH). Mansour blends his background in biology, health communication and predictive analytics to assist with public health department data science initiatives. He touched on themes of transparency, participation, and collaboration in the context of innovation during National Public Health Week events at Drexel University.

“I took myself out of the office and into the uncomfortable situation of going to hackathons, and believe it or not,” explained Mansour, “there are people who have public health heart and want to help. Whether its pure or to make sure their name is on something, helping a big city is important to them.”

As the Population Health Spotlight speaker nominated and selected by Dornsife students, Mansour engaged with the entire school for a day, starting with a student brunch, followed by a Population Health Spotlight noontime presentation, and wrapping up with a hands-on workshop for students and community members. He was nominated by Kara Fisher, MPH ’16, after they met at public health codeathon during the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting last fall. “Innovative technology will be instrumental in the future of public health practice, and Raed is a leader in the field,” said Fisher. “His work has led to cost-effective, collaborative initiatives that are being adapted to improve the health of Chicago and other cities.”

At APHA’s hackathon, Mansour explained, “we took public health people that didn’t code, and took people from the tech community that didn’t know public health and they joined teams. People in public health and computer science built solutions for free, and are putting them on [open source developer community] GitHub for everyone to copy.”

Mansour encouraged students to not be afraid to get involved with government, innovation and computer technology. “These projects are team efforts and you can lead the team or contribute your unique skillset,” said Mansour. You don’t have to be a coder or a tech person to be involved in technical projects, he pointed out.

“Innovation doesn’t mean high-tech,” Mansour explained, noting that some of the most engaging and effective innovations are as simple as uploading a spreadsheet or sending a text message. He described how data combined in a spreadsheet have been converted into an easy-to-use web-based app that pinpoints free vaccine sites based on location. The code developed for CDPH has been adapted as new needs emerge – for flu shots, back-to-school immunizations and even in meningitis outbreaks – and was also adopted as a standard code used by opensource data company Socrata and the nonprofit advocacy group Code for America.

The challenge of limited resources forced Mansour’s data science team to be resourceful, innovate and collaborate. “When asked to do more with less, you start saying where can I start being more useful, better, where can I be more efficient,” said Mansour. Partnerships with organizations like the Center for Data Science and Public Policy at the University of Chicago have been instrumental in developing, implementing, and sustaining innovative public health projects in Chicago. Collaborations between CDPH and other local government departments have opened up as the nation’s third-largest city takes steps to incorporate ‘health in all policies’.