Commentary

Points To Ponder For Mayo Clinic's New Social Endeavor

I read with interest the press release from the Mayo Clinic Tuesday, trumpeting the creation of the Social Media Health Network (SMHN), which aims to "use social media to promote health, improve health care and fight disease."

The network has lofty, noble goals and says it intends to use "conferences, webinars and development of social platforms for sharing training materials and resources" to help it achieve its goals.

Mayo Clinic has multiple partners lined up already (five in the U.S. and one in the Netherlands) and intends to extend its reach into Africa, Asia, Australia and South America. With the resources these organizations have at their disposal, the program appears to have a great chance at success.

However, when I read through the release I couldn't help but think that something was missing. I re-read it, and then it hit me. I never saw terms like "mobile," "open source" or "API" mentioned. My hope is that it's implied, because to not have these woven into such an endeavor would be a major misstep.

And the beauty of the Mayo Clinic's timing is that there are already numerous lessons learned from other altruistic programs that could help the SMHN grow exponentially over time. Two of my favorites are Ushahidi and SeeClickFix.

Swahili for "testimony", Ushahidi is a growing global platform that originated in 2008 out of a need to track reports of post-election violence in Kenya. The service enables people to report incidents via SMS that can be tracked on a map, which vastly expands the pool of potential contributors. Ushahidi's stated goal "to create a platform that any person or organization can use to set up their own way to collect and visualize information" is a model that many other organizations could follow to help get their message out. A look at some of the existing Ushahidi implementations underscores its flexibility.

SeeClickFix is a service that, like Ushahidi, relies on numerous contributions from thousands of mobile phone users. It helps plot, track and put pressure on municipalities to address a variety of non-emergencies such as potholes and graffiti. While not open-source, SeeClickFix sports an API that supports the open311 initiative, which seeks to create an open standard for 311 services.

The thing I love about services such as these is that they are truly social in the sense that anyone can play a role from both content contribution and platform expansion perspectives. As evidenced by the likes of Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others, there's no telling how much a service can grow and influence others when its audience is given the tools to contribute in ways that are meaningful to them.

While much of the initial announcement for the SMHN seems to focus on a more top-down approach to community involvement, my hope is that there is room in the equation for a bottom-up approach that enables a true partnership with the people the initiative is ultimately trying to serve.

In video interviews I recently participated in with a hospital client, I was reminded how much promise lies in the area of gene therapy, where patients can actually play a role in their own treatments and therapies. It seems to me that initiatives like the SMHN could similarly benefit from such a decentralized approach, aided by the people it aims to serve.

4 comments about "Points To Ponder For Mayo Clinic's New Social Endeavor ".
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  1. Lee Aase from Mayo Clinic, October 1, 2010 at 2:32 p.m.

    Thanks for this post. I appreciate your calling attention to what we're doing. When you see the network site launch later this month, I think you will be mostly pleased at what you see, although we certainly will have room to continue improving.

    We definitely plan to take advantage of open source opportunities so that what we are doing can be easily replicated and built upon by others. We want others to be able to build upon what we're doing for exactly the reason you mention in your last sentence: because the people we hope to serve can help us accomplish that goal. We will all gain by this approach.

    As you say, we have some lofty goals, and we can't accomplish them without such a broad-based, decentralized approach. The good news is that today's tools make such an approach practical.

    I look forward to being able to share more details when the site launches. The terms you mention were meant to be implied, because they are at the core of social media. Thanks again for your excellent post.

  2. Lee Aase from Mayo Clinic, October 1, 2010 at 2:47 p.m.

    One more thing...as you look at our placeholder site you will see explicit references to open source content management and crowdsourcing. Click the link below to learn more about it:

    http://socialmediahealthnetwork.org/

  3. Chad Capellman from Taoti Creative, October 2, 2010 at 10:17 a.m.

    Thanks for the comments Lee. I think a lot of good should come of the project. One point I'd like to clarify is in what I meant by open source. What I love about Ushahidi is how they've been able to open source the platform to enable others to use it in their own way. This is a subtle distinction from using an open-source platform as a content management system, but it's obviously still very early in the process and I appreciate you clarifying here.

    I also appreciate you taking the time to engage with myself and Frani Lieberman http://bit.ly/aUSi7W about this on the blogs and on Twitter. Looking forward to seeing the site!

  4. Lee Aase from Mayo Clinic, October 11, 2010 at 9:05 a.m.

    I appreciate that, Chad, and your open source distinction. I hope what we will be pulling together will enable others to tailor and customize for their own applications, so I hope we will be open source in the fullest sense of the phrase.

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