Healing the poor, digitally

(In case you’re looking for something to take your mind off the election, watch this).

I was thrilled to close out the Duke Forward road events in New York City, along with my graduate student colleague, Shelley Lanpher. Shelley and I talked about our work using digital health to improve obesity treatment in medically vulnerable populations.

Oh, and make sure you #waitforit — there’s a “surprise” reveal at the end.

GirlTrek is what’s next in [digital] public health programs

The New York Times blog, Fixes, featured one of my favorite organizations today. Girl Trek is the best public health program you haven’t heard about [yet]. Look, I’m a scientist, a wonk, a tinkerer. I’m technically inclined, and quantitatively oriented. I’m hyperbolic and excitable, but I’m not easily inspired.

But GirlTrek inspires me [big time].

Here’s a gross simplification — recruit nearly 60k women nationally, women who are mostly sedentary, who lead busy lives and who don’t [yet] take enough time for themselves. Link them with groups, comprised of women, similar and dissimilar, of all ages and backgrounds. Then, motivate them to walk. And walk. And keep walking.

Physical inactivity is one of the most pressing public health crises of our time. And yet, many of our public health efforts haven’t gotten the population moving. This is especially true in high risk groups, like Black women.

GirlTrek is different. They reach, engage, motivate, and inspire with an approach that’s organic, culturally resonant, and technologically sophisticated. My take?

“We’ve spent an enormous amount of money on research-based approaches to obesity prevention and treatment, and almost none of them have worked with black women,” says Gary G. Bennett, a professor at Duke University and a leading researcher on obesity. “One of the key predictors of positive treatment outcomes is really high levels of engagement. I’ve been doing work on obesity as it affects medically vulnerable populations for 15 years, and I don’t know of anything in the scientific community or any public health campaigns that have been able to produce and sustain engagement around physical activity for black women like GirlTrek does. Not even close.”

And, it’s working.

Their secret? Focusing on what matters to women today. Not the health benefits that might accrue in the far future.

“It wasn’t about looking good or weight loss or fitting into a certain type of clothing,” she recalled. “It wasn’t, ‘Hey, you fat person, you need to do this or you’re going to die.’ It was, ‘I love you and I want you to love yourself enough to invest in 30 minutes a day, to walk yourself to freedom like Harriet Tubman did.’ And that spoke deeply for me because my life work is showing up for other people, but I wasn’t showing up for myself.”

We researchers can occasionally have a bit of hubris (!) about what it takes to improve public health. But the data don’t lie. For some of these issues, we need bright, creative, and novel ideas that can work — at scale.

Look no further than GirlTrek.

This might deal the death blow to the digital divide

There's good evidence that, during the past half decade, mobile has become the "digital onramp to the Internet". The digital divide in Internet access dissipates greatly when you consider mobile access.

That's what makes announcements like these so exciting. Google's Project Loon would launch balloon access points into the sky, providing easy (and hopefully cheap) Internet access in areas that are challenging to wire.

A single “Project Loon” balloon can now remain in the air for more than six months and provide 4G LTE cellular service to an area the size of Rhode Island, according to Google. Company officials have taken to calling Loon balloons “cell towers in the sky.”

Google plans to launch Project Loon in global locations abroad:

As for where pilot projects will begin, Jabbari said, “given that we have an established launch site in New Zealand and an established recovery zone in Latin America and other places, that's where you're most likely to see us, somewhere around there.” However, “we've had conversations with countries elsewhere and telcos elsewhere, those have all gone really well.” Jabbari said Google wants to create a “ring around the world” with its balloons.

Here's my suggestion: start at home, too.

The proliferation of cheap mobile devices and now, pervasive [and potentially cheap] Internet access could deal the death blow to our domestic digital divide. We need a Marshall Plan of sorts to support the coordination of initiatives like Loon (as well as competing projects from Facebook and some of the telcos). The goal: extend the digital revolution to all Americans.