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Black Voices: Can we leverage digital technology to end the HIV epidemic?

Meico Whitlock

Meico Whitlock

Black Voices: Can we leverage digital technology to end the HIV epidemic?

By Meico Whitlock, Senior Manager, Communications, National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD)

      Barack Obama’s campaign success in 2008 and 2012 was fueled, in part, by harnessing the power of digital technology and social networks. His team weaved rich social data culled from websites such as Twitter and Facebook to build profiles of supporters and “persuadables.”

He leveraged predictive analytics to predict the behavior of potential voters. He used data to tailor messages based on demographics, issues of importance, and a host of other factors. He leveraged the power of online ad networks, email lists, and offline social networks to reach, engage, and change the behavior of potential supporters with clear objectives in mind: get them to donate, vote, volunteer and get their friends and family to do the same.

What if we marshaled the same resources and innovation to end the domestic HIV epidemic?

The HIV epidemic continues to impact thousands of Americans each year and exacts a disproportionate burden on the Black community, especially our young men and boys.

We have made great strides in ending the epidemic under President Obama’s watch with the release of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS), the appointment of the first Black gay man living with HIV to the Office of the National AIDS Policy (ONAP) and relatively stable funding during uncertain economic times, among other notable accomplishments.

We have biomedical advances in the way of single-tablet regimens and emerging prevention strategies like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). We also have proven examples that illustrate how digital technology can be leveraged strategically and effectively to facilitate behavior change and save lives as evidenced by the first-of-its-kind Federal Digital Government Strategy and the declaration that new and emerging technologies play a critical part in moving us toward and AIDS-free generation.

The techniques leveraged by the Obama campaigns are already being explored in other disease areas. For example, researcher Dr. Gunther Eysenbach is leading the development of a new field of study in information epidemiology (also known as “infodemiology”), which studies the determinants and distribution of online health information. Using this new discipline and methodology, Dr. Eysenbach was able to demonstrate a correlation between flu-related searches on Google and flu-incidence data and do it better and more timely than some traditional surveillance methods. Other researchers, such as the participants in the new International Conference on Digital Disease Detection (they even have a Twitter hashtag: #DigDisDet!), are conducting similar research across a range of disease areas and online platforms.

Innovation is already happening through public-private partnerships at the Federal level. CDC has joined forces with Google on the Google Flu Trends project to use aggregated Google search data to estimate influenza activity in the United States. CDC is also one of the many partners for the Text4Baby project, a free text messaging service for pregnant women and new moms. SAMSHA is collaborating with Facebook to prevent suicide by monitoring potentially suicidal comments.

So, here’s the good news: we know what it takes to end HIV and we have the tools to do it. This includes investing in research in effective digital strategies to achieve the best health outcomes possible.


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