How Will Technology Influence Community Health? Help Us Learn More

Sep 5, 2018, 10:00 AM, Posted by

Examine how technology’s impact on infrastructure in the near future can improve health equity in the United States.

Street car stop in New Orleans.

Louisville, Ky., has one of the highest asthma rates in the United States. To better understand this problem, community leaders blanketed the city with air quality sensors and equipped more than 1,000 asthma sufferers with GPS-enabled inhalers. They also downloaded traffic data from Waze, pulled in local weather information, and used manually-collected data on city vegetation.

Together, this data revealed that people used their inhalers most on days with high temperatures and high air pollution, and in areas with heavy traffic and few trees. Using this information, local leaders are now taking steps to increase the tree canopy and reroute trucks in neighborhoods where asthma is most severe. They are also exploring changes to city-wide zoning policies to improve overall health.

What happened in Louisville isn’t just a story of effective community engagement or savvy data analysis. It is an example of how technology can be used to shape our communities for the good—and with major implications for health.

Technology is Transforming Our Communities

Digital technologies are transforming the infrastructure that underpins our communities, changing how we live, work and play. Smartphones, for example, have enabled the growth of bikeshare and rideshare services, extending mass transit systems and expanding our options for how to commute to work, visit church or attend doctors’ appointments; sometimes with the added benefit of exercise. Vast troves of data generated by sensors on our city streets, like those in Louisville, are helping reduce traffic congestion or improve air quality. And technology is informing how we allocate space for traditional community features like parks and libraries.

When we look to the future, technology’s impact on the health of our communities is even more palpable. Self-driving cars promise to radically change who has access to transportation, how we get from place to place, and may even improve safety and reduce traffic deaths. Intelligent infrastructure, the combination of data and physical infrastructure, will undoubtedly transform agriculture and can improve public health response in rural communities.

But technology’s influence on our infrastructure and health also raises some important questions:

  • How are our communities being impacted by digital technologies? Are certain innovations making it easier or tougher for some communities to access the food, transportation, housing, and economic opportunities they need to support good health? For example, as on-demand car services flourish, some cities have cut back or rerouted public transportation, making it more challenging for residents to get around.
  • Are the shifts and disruptions in infrastructure, spurred by technological innovation, helping some people more than others? While new innovations may promise largely positive effects for the privileged, they could have dramatically different implications for communities experiencing inequities. Take the explosion of monitoring devices in our public spaces: while the data they generate can guide community improvements, the notion of being constantly watched only heightens the experience of unequal surveillance for many communities, which undermines good health and well-being.
  • As we look to the future, how can we ensure new and emerging technologies create, rather than hinder, opportunities for everyone in America to live a healthier life? While autonomous vehicles may make our roads safer, they will likely mean a loss of jobs for taxi and other drivers, and new, unanticipanted dangers for pedestrians. How can we best enhance the good and mitigate the bad effects of these innovations?

We Want to Hear From You

We’re seeking proposals that explore how tech-driven changes to our infrastructure might impact health in the near future, and how emerging technologies can be harnessed to transform infrastructure in ways that could improve health in diverse communities across America. We’re interested in funding a variety of projects from a wide range of researchers, advocates, community groups and city leaders, among others—whether responding to a lack of research evidence or policy framework, or planning a new intervention.

I asked a few of my colleagues what questions related to technology, infrastructure, and health were top-of-mind:

  • Jamie Bussel: How can data-driven technologies transform our food supply chain to increase access to healthy, affordable food and reduce food waste?
  • David Adler: Will “smart” cities and homes allow older people to stay independent and in their homes longer? Can high-tech communities improve health and well-being for older people who may need help with some aspects of daily life?
  • Paul Tarini: Will big data marketing influence our perceptions of health and what we need to do to keep ourselves, our families, and our communities healthy?
  • Deborah Bae: As more consumers shop online, will local businesses—which are often the backbone of communities—fail to thrive? How will this impact lower-income communities who often rely on local businesses for economic opportunities or basic needs like groceries and sending mail?
  • Steve Downs: How might Internet of Things technologies, such as connected sensors, digitally-controlled environments and robotics, change the way our residential spaces are designed and function?

These are just a few examples of the types of questions we think you could help us answer—we know there are many more to tackle. We’re counting on you to tell us where we should explore and help us anticipate the future so we can build a Culture of Health together.

This call for proposals is now closed.


About the Author

Headshot of Trene Hawkins

Trené Hawkins works with visionaries from various disciplines to discover new thinking about how to transform health and health care. Read her full bio.