Merging Social Media with Art to Improve Cardiovascular Health

Mar 28, 2014, 9:00 AM

Raina Merchant, MD, MSHP, is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Clinical Scholars program alumna and an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania Department of Emergency Medicine. She recently launched a venture that challenges citizen designers to make automated external defibrillators (AEDs) more visible.

Human Capital Blog: Congratulations on the launch of your new research venture at the University of Pennsylvania. Can you describe it?

Raina Merchant: In June, 2013, we launched the Social Media and Health Innovation Lab. It’s a multidisciplinary group of physicians, computer scientists, demographers, communications specialists, policy scientists, designers, and more.

The group has expertise in crowdsourcing, app development, Twitter analyses, Facebook analyses, Foursquare engagement, Gigwalk analyses, Yelp analyses, and gaming. The Lab disseminates multidisciplinary research at the intersection of social media, mobile technology, and health—and uses digital tools to improve individual and population health behaviors and outcomes. One of the Lab’s recent projects merges social media with art to improve cardiovascular health.

HCB: How does your current project build off of your previous one, which located and digitally mapped AEDs in Philadelphia?

Merchant: Our initial project, the MyHeartMap Challenge, used crowdsourcing and social media to locate life-saving AEDs in Philadelphia. Through this project we located and documented more than 1,400 AEDs in Philadelphia and created an AED map. Through this effort we learned how difficult it is for AEDs to be identified when they are suddenly needed. AEDs are often hidden in plain sight.

To explore ways to make AEDs more visible, we launched the Defibrillator Design Challenge. Specifically, it’s an online crowdsourcing contest for individuals to create designs around the space of AEDs so they are more noticeable. We’ve allotted more than $1,000 for the winner with the most votes and social media “shares.”

Through this work we hope to accomplish two things: First, we want to make AEDs more visible so that people will know where they are when needed; and second, we want to empower people to look for AEDs in public places and notice them.

HCB: How is your new project going?

Merchant: The contest launched February 6, 2014, and lasts until April 6, 2014. As of mid-March we’ve had more than 100 unique designs submitted and more than 10,000 web visits.

HCB: Why is it important to make AEDs more visible in public spaces?

Merchant: AEDs are easy to use and anyone can apply them. Most devices will provide audible instructions when they are opened. When used with CPR, they can increase an individual’s chances of survival from less than 2 percent to greater than 50 percent. For AEDs to be effective, individuals have to know to retrieve them and they have to be locatable. Our project seeks to make AEDs more visible so they are easy to find when needed in emergencies.

HCB: You describe this project as being at the intersection of public health and public art. Can you elaborate?

Merchant: This project uses public designs and art to address a major public health problem. We seek to adapt a different creative modality to raise awareness about heart health and life-saving equipment.

HCB: This project, like your previous one, uses crowdsourcing techniques. Can you describe how that works and why you chose to go that route?

Merchant: Crowdsourcing offers an opportunity to engage wide audiences to think about problems and tackle difficult tasks. We could have hired a design firm for this project but we would have missed an opportunity to generate input from the public, the people who will need to use AEDs. Crowdsourcing represents one approach, and we were interested in connecting with new audiences to help work on a public health challenge. 

HCB: Did the RWJF Clinical Scholars program prepare you for this kind of work and, if so, how?

Merchant: Absolutely! The RWJF Clinical Scholars program (CSP) provided me with a research foundation to tackle a difficult problem that has a solid evidence base but still needs help with implementation. Through this project I was able to bring together a group of stakeholders (academics, designers, government organizations, non-profits, etc.) to work synergistically to address a public health challenge. Multidisciplinary teamwork aligns with the projects I learned about and tried to model as an RWJF fellow. As a fellow I was continually inspired by the work of my fellow CSP colleagues—they took risks and weren’t afraid to try new approaches. I appreciated their balance of traditional work with high-risk, high-reward projects with significant impact.

HCB: Where can people learn more about your new project?

Merchant: More information is available at

Read a Q&A and a blog post in which Merchant talks about her earlier work to help people locate AEDs in emergencies.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.