What Smart Communities Can Learn From the Flu


Too Much Information

As you, my GovLoop readers, know from previous blog entries, I’m a geographer. As such, I tend to think of most problems as geography problems. Well, I’m here to tell you that the flu is no exception. It too is a geographic problem. Let me explain – today, I’m starting my blog entry with a little TMI. I’m writing this blog having just returned from the waiting room of the nearby 24-Hour clinic. I went there to see a doctor to tell me that I have the flu.

What fascinated me about my morning’s visit wasn’t the number of fellow patients sniffling in the waiting room; nor that she told me that the flu was on the rise in my area – it’s January for goodness sake. What fascinated me was how prepared my local drugstore was for my arrival. Upon entering the drugstore, I was greeted by end-cap displays of the latest cold and cough medicines, signs guiding me to where I might get a flu shot and coupons that saved me money. I had just run an errand to this very same store a day before and none of this was present.

Smart Businesses

I’m aware that businesses use data analytics and location technology to scrutinize both customers and merchandise. Their aim is better understanding of their customers – our wants and needs, what to stock and the right time to stock it. A lot can be learned about how this is done by reviewing these two links: Merchandising – Plan Your Assortment and Birds of a Feather Shop Together- Demographics and Store Performance. So, as I’ve already told you, I know that stores do this kind of analysis. But still, I was astonished by this store’s readiness for me.

The Savvy Business

Two years ago, I was fortunate to attend a presentation by the director of location intelligence for Walgreens. In describing Walgreens’ analytical work, the director told us that they serve over 8 million customers a day through 8,200 stores, and that the goal of his location analysis work was to provide to the customer “convenience.”  He didn’t speak of selling X-million products, or Y-million in sales. He was using the results of his geographic analysis to deliver a product that they don’t sell: convenience.

The Flu Map

A small example of their analysis work can be experienced by visiting Walgreens Flu Index . This Flu Index is not a measure of actual flu diagnoses and does not measure actual levels or severity of flu activity. The index is compiled using data about their retail prescriptions for antiviral medications and associated over-the-counter drugs and products related to treating the flu. The link provided above is the public facing version of the analysis. It goes without saying that there are details, at both data and geographic levels, that provide further richness to the internal operations of Walgreens. It proves to me their ability to better understand the customer, our wants, our needs, what to stock and the right time to stock it.

The Flu Meets the Smart Community

Very simply, as I entered the drug store to fill my prescription, they were prepared for me. It took a second, but I was literally stopped in my tracks. They delivered to me what I needed, but more importantly, they also delivered what I didn’t know I wanted: convenience. It has since dawned on me that this is the element that is often missing from our discussions about “Smart Communities.”

Often, the articles and case studies showcasing a smart project address a particular technology providing a singular solution like smart parking, smart transit or smart street lights. The discussion emphasizes the IT system the jurisdiction put in place and anecdotal evidence about how life for the citizen improved and the economies did better. As if “Smart” was the end goal. Less often, one hears about communities with a broader vision of smart. They discuss the system-of-systems that they’ve put together creating cross-departmental efforts that proved measurable return on investments and savings for their citizens. Rarely have I seen city, county or state officials discuss a full vision for their smart programs and projects. Rarer still do our leaders discuss a vision for smart that truly focuses on the citizen, their customer, addressing both what they need and what they want: convenience.

There’s a Lesson in There Somewhere

I’m not a big believer in trying to fit private sector solutions into a government setting. Government exists for a different reason and is propelled forward by different engines and economics. But there is always something to learn from everyone. With 8 million customers daily, Walgreens is bigger than most states, counties, and cities in the US. Their resources are larger and more agile than any government body could be. Nonetheless, they have one thing in common with government, they just use a different word. That one thing is us, the citizens of our communities are their customers. What drives customers also drives citizens and that is convenience.

Data is the Difference Maker

The director of location intelligence for Walgreens didn’t wake up one day and say, “we need to create smart systems that collect the data we need to do analysis so we can make our customers happier.” They always kept records of the prescriptions they filled. They always had systems that kept track of inventory and what sold and what didn’t. These records and these systems evolved from paper to electronic, much like the data systems governments rely on to operate today. What changed was how they viewed the data: as a resource.

Governments today have this same opportunity, but we need to think bigger. Building a smart community doesn’t start with an IT project – it isn’t a goal; it isn’t a journey; and it doesn’t have a finish line. The smart dialogue needs to start with the citizen in mind and the idea of convenience.

End Note

I should mention that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) publishes a similar index map, the Flu Activity Map. CDC’s data is derived from laboratory data and reported doctor visits for influenza-like illnesses.


Richard Leadbeater is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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