RWJF Health & Society Scholar's Data-Aggregating Asthma Tool Gets a NASA-Style LAUNCH

David Van Sickle's "smart inhaler" technology in spotlight at forum on solving urgent health care challenges.

    • November 17, 2010

A few years ago, 2006 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholar David Van Sickle, Ph.D., had a deceptively simple idea for tracking asthma “hot spots”: turn asthma sufferers’ inhalers into data-tracking devices. The idea, and his initial implementation of it, has been earning considerable attention—and praise—of late.

Earlier this year, President Obama’s Community Health Data Initiative highlighted his "Asthmapolis" data aggregation tool and “Spiroscout Inhaler Tracker” for recognition alongside data-driven health care concepts from Google, Microsoft the National Association of Counties and others. Now the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have taken notice.

Van Sickle's concept married global positioning system (GPS) technology with an ordinary asthma inhaler. When a patient takes a puff on the inhaler, presumably in response to an asthma attack, the device knows when and where the patient was and keeps track. Capturing that data electronically not only spares the patient the burden of keeping a pen-and-paper log, but it also significantly improves the accuracy of the tracking and helps identify patients with uncontrolled asthma.

More than that, however, when the data from an individual patient’s inhaler tracker is downloaded into software designed to aggregate data from multiple patients, it becomes a powerful public health tool. By analyzing trends, researchers are able to quickly identify potential environmental hazards in the community that could trigger asthma attacks, right down to the GPS coordinates and the time of day.

On October 26, NASA, USAID, the U.S. Department of State and Nike announced that Van Sickle would be one of just ten innovators selected to participate in their LAUNCH: Health Forum. LAUNCH is built around a series of forums structured to propel ideas for solving urgent societal challenges into the national dialogue. Earlier this year, the partners hosted a similar event focused on water issues.

At the health forum, held a few days later, Van Sickle and fellow innovator/entrepreneurs from around the world discussed their proposed solutions to health issues with 40 experts in business, policy, engineering, science, communications and sustainability issues. The discussions were intended to identify challenges and discuss future opportunities for innovations.

Appropriately enough, on the final day of the event, NASA invited participants to witness the final launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery. Unfortunately, the shuttle launch was delayed by several days.

"LAUNCH offers a great opportunity to share the stories behind our technology and to develop our plans for the next stages in collaboration with a diverse group of experts and innovators,” Van Sickle, a medical anthropologist, said. “Since many of the projects face the same essential challenges, we all benefit from the rapid cross-pollination that occurs, not to mention the support and encouragement of the LAUNCH council and facilitators."

"NASA's interest in technology development and problem-solving in the area of human health issues makes hosting this discussion among innovators and thought leaders a natural fit," NASA's deputy administrator, Lori Garver, said. “We see LAUNCH as a great opportunity to support innovators and entrepreneurs who are helping provide sustainable solutions to today’s biggest development challenges,” added Alex Dehgan, director of USAID's Office of Science and Technology.

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