Technology giving local leaders information they need to improve health outcomes among residents
By Greg Basky for SHRF
Population health researcher Tarun Katapally has teamed up with community leaders in the remote northern community of Île-à-la-Crosse to determine whether big data – collected through the now ubiquitous smartphone – can be harnessed in the fight against COVID-19 and other health threats to local residents.
Right now, he says, there’s a lag between testing and reporting of results. “Can we pick up indicators of a potential outbreak earlier on, so we can act quickly? What if we could get an indication of the trajectory of a disease even before someone gets tested, just based on their activities, or on certain key indicators of health?”
Such an early warning system would enable local services – including not just health, but education, justice, and social services – to coordinate a rapid, cohesive response to limit the spread of disease.
Over the past year, using funding from a Mitacs Accelerate grant, he and his research team worked closely with leaders in the predominantly Metis community to create the digital infrastructure for just such a rapid response system. Now, with the support of an Impact grant from SHRF, Katapally will work with the community to maintain the system for the next two years and evaluate its effectiveness.
The technology behind Sakitawak Health platform
The Sakitawak Health platform has two main parts (Sakitawak is Cree for “where the rivers meet”). The front end is a mobile app citizens download onto their smartphones that prompts them to provide information about their day-to-day health behaviors and activities, and – based on their responses – delivers personalized tips on how to stay healthy. The backend of the platform is a dashboard that flags potential problems for local leadership – increased indoor gatherings without masks or travel outside the community, for example – so they can implement appropriate protective measures such as quarantining to prevent spread of disease.
While COVID-19 was the impetus for the project, Katapally and his team are playing the long game. On the near horizon, their goal is helping the community be better prepared for subsequent waves of COVID. But they’re building the digital infrastructure so that it’s not obsolete once the current pandemic is in our collective rearview mirror. Katapally says he’s not aware of another similar rapid response system aimed at helping local communities to address outbreaks of communicable diseases or other potential threats.
The team knew they needed to incentivize people to share their data, by providing them with some value for downloading and using the app – something Katapally suspects may have prevented Health Canada’s contract tracing app from gaining much traction.
“With Sakitawak Health, I can see my own behaviour and I can see, oh my risk has gone up this week because I did this and this,” says Katapally. “It almost makes it like a game, by incentivizing me to keep engaging with the app.” People’s data are securely and anonymously transferred to the dashboard, which allows for real-time action by local authorities. “It’s a win-win for decision makers and for citizens.”
Sakitawak is community driven
Overseeing the project on the ground is a Citizen Scientist Advisory Council that includes Île-à-la-Crosse mayor Duane Favel, the CEO of the local school division, three high school students, two elders, and a social worker. The group, says Katapally, is embracing the power of data and technology. “I often hear that Indigenous communities or Indigenous people do not look at technology positively – which couldn't be more wrong,” he says. “They are interested and quite positive and open when it comes to technology. They want to use every technology possible, to become more independent.”
Katapally can’t think of a better example of how technology can be leveraged to support self-governance and self-determination. “This will allow you to make better decisions, based on evidence, based on big data, in near-real time,” says Katapally. “What could be cooler than that?”
At the request of the Advisory Council, the team has built an additional feature into the Sakitawak Health platform focused on food security. Through the app, citizens will be prompted to answer questions about their access to food. By monitoring the dashboard, leaders will be alerted when citizens are struggling. The team is figuring out how to link up the dashboard with the local food bank, so that staff there are made aware when a citizen needs support and so that the person receives a notification with information on how to access food through the food bank.
The project, says Katapally, could not have happened without strong local champions looking down the road, past the end of the pandemic. “The leadership needed to have a vision, which they do,” says Katapally. “They’re not just thinking about right now. They’re thinking about the next 10 years and even longer. That’s rare to find.”
Project illustrating what’s possible when you decentralize data
Local leaders hope to begin pilot testing the platform with a handful of community members in early 2022, fix any bugs, then roll it out to all of Île-à-la-Crosse in late winter or early spring.
“The data are out there, they’re universally available,” says Katapally. “So why not use them?” He acknowledges that people have concerns about their data and protecting their privacy – as they should. But he thinks the model they’ve developed for Sakitawak Health, where the local community owns and controls the data and will – if asked – delete a person’s information, will make people more willing to participate.
“It's not a California-based, big tech company that's building this,” says Katapally. “This is all about decentralization of technology. That’s what excites me. You can take this technology and decentralize it and use it locally. You don't need big tech to do this for you anymore.”