So you want to build a Smart Phone Harm Reduction App

I have had a lot of discussions about smart phone apps lately.  Now I don’t have anything against apps.  They can be handy and a little addictive, however I have to concentrate on not rolling my eyes whenever  someone enthusiastically cries, “Let’s build an app to give people information about drugs!”

Let’s face it for every successful app that reaches a large audience there are hundreds if not thousands of smart phone applications that remain in obscurity.  The idea that if ‘we build it, they will come’, just does not work with smart phone apps.

So what makes a successful smart phone application?

Looking at my iPhone there are two broad characteristics that the apps I have downloaded must meet:

  • They need to be engaging.  You know those time wasters that help you to fill in the blanks while you’re sitting around in the dentist’s waiting room.  Angry Birds is a great example of an engaging successful smart phone app.  Unless someone comes up with an engaging harm reduction themed game however, I don’t see this as being the future of harm reduction smart phone applications.
  • They need to be useful.  A successful application needs to provide some utility and/or efficiency that a mobile website does not.  I love my Tweet Deck app.  It enables me to keep track of, and post too, multiple social media accounts across Twitter and FaceBook without the necessity of logging in and out of different accounts.  It is a useful tool that saves me time.

A smart phone application that is devoid of either of these characteristics (engagement and/or utility) is not likely to find an audience.  Many of the smart phone applications that  have been produced for the alcohol and other drugs/harm reduction sectors fulfil neither of these characteristics but instead simply convey alcohol and other drugs information, a task more readily handled by designing mobile versions of existing websites.

3 Harm Reduction Smartphone Applications I wish someone would build

If smart phone applications are not the technological panacea to all of our harm reduction communication needs then what are they good for?  Well the reality is that harm reduction smart phone applications need to capitalise on the features of smart phones that set them apart from other internet capable devices.  It is not just their mobility that makes the smart phone a useful tool.

Let’s have a look at some smart phone application ideas that do utilise the potential of smart phone technology.

Needle Syringe Program Locator

You’re in a new town or city and need some sterile injecting equipment.  Know where to go?  What if you had an application that used the geo-location features of your phone to direct you to the nearest needle syringe program.  Information about the operating hours of local services, equipment distributed and even the location of per administered naloxone outlets could all be included.

Pill Identifier

Just scored a pill and you want some idea of what’s in it?  You could of course spend your time searching through the Pill Reports website, but what if you could use your phone to take a picture of the purchased item.  The pill identifier application would then match the photo against the descriptions and photos on sites like Pill Reports to find possible matches.  Gone is the need to enter pesky search terms.

QR Code Reader Alcohol Consumption Diary

Keeping track of your intake of standard drinks over the course of a session is a strategy that has been utilised in both alcohol and other drugs treatment as well as a harm reduction strategy.  While there are a number of blood alcohol calculator (BAC) apps on the market already, they require that the user manually enter data over the course of the session.  This may get a bit tricky (not to mention annoying) over the course of a drinking session.  Imagine however if you could simply use your phone to scan a QR code on the liquor packaging to record the type, amount and time of drink.  You would then be able to order the application to report how long it would take to return to 0.00 BAC.  Indeed if it was a particularly big session you may even be able to use the geo location features of the phone to output a record of where you were when you were consuming the alcohol.  Other features might include a reminder text sent to yourself when the calculator records a that you have reached a preset limit, or a prompt with the phone number of a local taxi service when you have recorded a BAC over the legal limit for driving.

Opportunistic Health Promotion

All of the ideas I have outlined above utilise innate features of today’s crop of smart phones and demonstrate a utility that is outside of the capacity of traditional websites (sure you could do all of these things with your laptop but I don’t really see myself seting up my laptop up at the end of the bar).  Furthermore they also provide an avenue for opportunistic health promotion, through the provision of additional harm reduction messages that can be incorporated in the apps, targeting the users’ behaviour according to the data that is entered.

When considering building a harm reduction app

Ask yourself:

  • Is this idea really suited for an app or is it more appropriate to make a mobile website?
  • What will be the usefulness of this application to the end user?
  • Is the information conveyed by the app something that people will need to access while mobile?
  • What characteristics or features of smartphone technology does this app utilise?
  • Do I want to build an app so that I can say I have built an app or does the idea meet an unmet need or fulfil currently met needs in an improved way?
19 Responses to “So you want to build a Smart Phone Harm Reduction App”
  1. I love all three of your ideas! Especially the pill ID one!

    Another one would be an expansion on the NSP one – which included the location of different kinds of services (social, health, etc… even treatment centres). Even if you are a local, you don’t often know about the existence of a service that is close to you. Such an app could actually be useful for connecting people with appropriate service providers.

  2. stonetreeaus says:

    Thanks Monica.

    Geo location has a lot of potential. I like the idea of just a straight NSP locator though. Removing additional inputs like other types of services means that the person accessing the app is not subject to extraneous information that they do not want or necessarily need at this time. Additionally many other AOD service types require an appointment which reduces the usefulness of the app for these purposes. Maybe a 4th app idea – an AOD service seeker: complete with information about things like appointment times, wait lists and any documents and other information a service user might need to bring to an additional appointment. You could include reviews submitted by previous service users too! Now I’m getting carried away with apps – just need to find someone with the tech know how to make these ideas happen (not to mention somebody who is willing to maintain the databses of data required too support such an app.



  3. its the locator that interests me, but in the one i envision there would be a quality voting system as well. eg voting on friendliness, knowledge, equipment range etc

  4. I can see what you mean about keeping it simple. I agree. The NSP locator is a winner!

    Do we have a sense of the penetration of smart phones within the population who access NSP at the moment? (I wonder if having the smart app would result in a whole new set of people who weren’t otherwise aware of NSP services starting to use them – remember back to a friend of mine years ago who injected and who never accessed services, only ever got fits from a pharmacy and even then was secretive about that, going to pharmacies a long way from his place of residence… something like this probably would have suited my friend back then!)

    As to making the app, maybe some of the people at the Communities/Technologies conference we went to – Matt – would be able to assist?

  5. stonetreeaus says:

    Not sure of smart phone penetration amongst injecting drug users, but I can say that the growth in internet access via mobile devices is outpacing growth in more traditional device access – e.g. computers. Given the fact that coverage for NSPs can be a bit patchy, I thought including pharmacies that were prepared to sell sterile equipment would be a nice addition. I like Nigel’s idea about service user reviews, my only hesitancy is that I would rather people access an unfriendly service rather than not access a service at all, but I guess people will make their own decisions about that anyway.

  6. Matt… I have a proposition. As you know, I’m a Curtin staff member. This opportunity just arrived in my inbox today:
    Maybe we could get together and develop your idea of NSP locator for this competition… and if it got up, it could get funded and become a reality?
    Nigel, maybe if it worked in Australia, it could go global?!

  7. I see Matts point about it would be better to go to a poor nsp rather than none at all, in the UK we have a slight advantage in that we have a relatively dense geographical coverage of NSPs so someone would not have to travel great distances (as they maybe would in aus) to get to a better one.
    This is a project I’ve got a lot of interest in and have been thinking about for quite a while now myself, I think that a web based system that also has an app with GPS functionality would be the way to go.
    In the uk no one has actually done the initial mapping to find all the outlets (this is on my personal to-do list) as each county manages this at a local level.
    If anything more happens around this on my side of the planet I’ll keep you both up to date, and if I can support you to do what you need let me know

  8. ok started mapping this out with popplet, I have a 3 hr train trip today so I’ll see what I come up with and send you both a copy

  9. sue purchase says:

    i love this discussion! i have similar thoughts, questions and concerns regarding smart phones and data tracking. the effort behind morpheus project is to have a responsive urban syringe access /exchange program that is lean and mean and smart phone technology could be quite useful but i can imagine the potential pitfalls too.

    • stonetreeaus says:

      Hey thanks for your comment Sue. I would love to hear more about what kinds of apps you reckon would be useful to the work of the Morpheus project and the people who use the service. As you can see from the discussions here, there a number of people putting there thinking hats on about potential smartphone applications.

  10. jane dee says:

    OMG i am so far out of the loop! and here i was thinking that i had come up with a great idea for an iphone app that was gonna make me filthy rich and here you guys have been discussing it already. Oh well, back to the drawing board for me. Bloody good idea tho Us injecting drug users need something like this yesterday. AIVL are putting a NSP locator together as we speak,

  11. Russell Webster over here in the UK has just put up a blog post on the need for a good OD app, has some interesting points

  12. Nigel has already kindly posted a link to my Blog post exploring similar issues. I should have realised you Aussies were ahead of the game when it came to social media…
    I’m keen to swap ideas. Nigel and I had a good chat about how getting users to rate NSPs would meet commissioners’ needs and encourage them to buy into the process too.

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