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Crowdsourcing for better health (communication)

Crowdrourcing has become a major buzzword in global public health. In late 2011, The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) crowdsourced the development of a new strategy on youth and HIV. Through the website, and other engagement via social media, youth and young adults ages 15-29 debated and drafted the policy recommendations. In all, more than 5000 young people from 79 countries participated in the process.

So what exactly is crowdsourcing? According to Daren C. Brabham, Ph.D., an assistant professor at UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, crowdsourcing refers to “an online, distributed problem solving and production model”. It differs from other collaborative online networks such as Wikipedia in the sense that “crowdsourcing works when an organization has a problem to solve or a product to design, and the organization opens that challenge up to an online community with specific solution parameters. Then, individuals in the online community work toward solving the problem or designing the product.”

Crowdsourcing is part of a large area of participatory health. This includes other topics we’ve discussed on here including social networks and smart phone health applications.

I’ve seen crowdsourcing projects on cancer research and even virtual colonoscopies. So, I decided to dig further to see in what way, if any, is crowdsourcing being used in the health communication domain. My crude search found none so far that tapped into the collective knowledge and intelligence of online communities to solve a problem.

What I did find was information on another buzzphrase: data mining. Of course, that led to Twitter. In 2011, researchers at John’s Hopkins University analyzed more than two billion tweets for health-related terms. To analyze the tweets, they developed a software algorithm to filter out about 1.5 million messages focusing on health- and medical-related terms. They found Twitter to indeed be a useful source of health information on a wide range of issues. Considering the criticism from the academic community about the inability of algorithms to recognize tone and other speech elements, can we design a project whereby we use global intelligence to help us better understand how people use Twitter (or other large online networks) to deliver and get health information?

What do you think a health communication project that harnessed the power of crowdsourcing could look like? Can we use crowdsourcing to help achieve some of the behavior change goals we seek to engender in health communication—whether at the individual, community or policy level?

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