by: Perry W. Payne, Jr., MD/JD/MPP

The US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) recently announced a new challenge called: “Now Trending: #Health in My Community, Following Disease Trends 140 characters at a time.”

The “Now Trending” Challenge was created by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) in response to an increasing realization that social media is a useful tool for news and data collection.

Purpose of Challenge

Numerous studies have revealed that trending social media topics may provide early indicators and warnings of emerging health concerns in communities, for example one recent study by Chunara et al. at Harvard University demonstrated that postings on Twitter correlated with official data on the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti. As a result of such data, ASPR is challenging innovators to use open source Twitter data to create a web based application that automatically delivers a list of the top five trending illnesses in a specified geographic area in a 24 hour period.

The goal is for the data to be used for a number of reasons including:

  • Building a baseline of trend data
  • Engaging the public on trending health topics
  • Serving as an indicator of potential health issues emerging in the population
  • Cross-referencing other data sources

Timeline for Entry

Registration for this challenge began on March 16, 2012. The deadline for submissions is June 1, 2012 11:00 PM EDT. Individuals and teams can register for the challenge here. Winners will be announced on September 10, 2012 9:00 AM EDT


As stated above, the Now Trending Challenge wants developers to use Twitter data to create a web based application that can provide a list of the top five trending illnesses in a certain region in a 24 hour period. This list will be sent to public health practitioners at the state and local level to use for a variety of purposes related to addressing emerging public health concerns.

There are five main requirements for all entries.

  1. They should be able to offer users that ability to select a geographic area of interest. Geographic area is not defined by the sponsors, so innovators are able to determine what geographic areas of interest are the most meaningful for health trends.
  2. The application also has to utilize open source Twitter Application Programming Interface (API). Twitter indicates that API is “a defined way for a program to accomplish a task, usually by retrieving or modifying data.” The company also indicates that it provides “an API method for just about every feature available” on its website. More information on Twitter API can be found there.
  3. The application must also be able to count the frequency of tweets on health topics during a 24 hour period using an illness classification system offered by the sponsor. The classification system consists of mainly infectious diseases and is about 25 pages long as a PDF.
  4. Another feature that app must have is the ability to produce a list of the top five health topics currently trending in a defined region.
  5. Finally, the application should be able to deliver the list to public health practitioners through a web based application. The sponsors do not indicate whether the web based application should be accessible by mobile phones, but this is probably a good assumption to make.

According to the sponsors, all submissions have to include:<.p>

  • A title
  • Link to the application
  • A description of the submission in the form of a slide presentation (10 slide maximum) or a document (5 page maximum).


There are numerous rules regarding who is eligible to participate in this challenge. The challenge is open to individuals and teams. All participants have to register on the website for the challenge and agree to the competitions rules. Any businesses applying must be incorporated and maintain a primary place of business in the US. Individuals must be citizens of the US and 18 years of age or older. Hence, unlike a number of other mobile health app competitions, this one is not open to entities incorporated in other countries.However, foreign citizens can be part of a business as long as it is incorporated in the US. The individual or team cannot be a federal entity or employee acting within the scope of their employment, but federal employees can enter challenges if it is outside the scope of their regular job. DHHS employees cannot work on this challenge during their work hours. An employee of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response cannot apply. Federal grantees cannot use their funds for the challenge unless this work is consistent with the purpose of their grants. Federal contractors cannot use federal funds to compete in the challenge or support submission for the challenge.

Upon submission of the entry, contestants grant ASPR an “irrevocable, paid-up, royalty-free nonexclusive worldwide license to use winning submissions and distribute them to the public to enhance situational awareness and response to health threats for a period of two years following announcement of the winners.”

However, ASPR allows contestants to retain all other intellectual property rights related to their submissions.

Judging teams

The judges for the competition are not currently available. However, the sponsors indicate that the judges will include a panel of “technical advisers with backgrounds in health, technology, and social media.” Winners of the challenge will be selected by the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, Rear Admiral Nicole Lurie.

The categories that judges will use to judge entries include the following:

  • Accessibility: can be used on multiple platforms by users of different skill levels
  • Innovation: go beyond basic challenge requirements
  • Usability: ease of use and interactive capabilities
  • Potential for impact in the public health field: ability to increase knowledge of emerging health issues in populations being affected by them


  • The winning team or individual will receive $21,000
  • Only one winner will be selected
  • The winner will also receive $1,000 for traveling to an event where the winner presents the application.