UPenn contest winners relied on shoe leather to find defibrillators

Cataloging defibrillators helped marathon runner (and co-winner) Jennifer Yuan burn energy while she had a broken foot: “I couldn’t run. But I could walk and bike.” CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Cataloging defibrillators helped marathon runner (and co-winner) Jennifer Yuan burn energy while she had a broken foot: “I couldn’t run. But I could walk and bike.” CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 05, 2012

Crowdsourcing? Social media? Twitter blasts? Fuggedaboutit.

Contrary to expectations, the winners of a contest to locate lifesaving portable medical devices in Philadelphia relied on old-fashioned shoe leather.

That was just one surprising outcome of MyHeartMap Challenge, the University of Pennsylvania’s project to map the locations of automated external defibrillators (AEDs) — backpack-size gizmos that can save cardiac arrest victims if used in time.

Another surprise: The original estimate of 5,000 public-access defibrillators was way too high. A more accurate guess, Penn researchers now say, is 2,500. And contestants identified locations for 1,500 of them.

But the biggest surprise was that walking into a building, finding out whether there was a unit, and snapping a photo of it was tremendously difficult. Often, the defibrillator hunters were confronted by blank stares, red tape, or mistrust.

The winners — Frankford High School athletic director Jack Creighton and information technology analyst Jennifer Yuan — had to be politely but exceptionally dogged. Each found more than 400 units, and each will receive a grand prize of $9,000.

“Sometimes we’d go out for three or four hours and not be allowed to take a single picture,” Creighton said of his team, made up of his wife and daughter. “At Independence National Park, they said, ‘Oh, we can’t show you where the AEDs are. National security.’ At the sewage treatment plant, they said, ‘We’ll have to check with our lawyers.’ They never called me back.”

Defibrillators can detect whether a heart has stopped because of an arrhythmia, then deliver a therapeutic electric shock. It will not fire if a shock won’t help, and even an untrained bystander can follow the step-by-step audio instructions.

However, no one maintains a comprehensive list of AED locations. MyHeartMap aims to create an interactive registry that will become part of the city’s 911 call system and be available through a smartphone app. Also, a map showing the AED locations will be on philly.com/health.

Initially, MyHeartMap leaders thought the contest would be a great opportunity for “crowdsourcing” — using the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones — to maximize collaboration.

The idea excited a team of computer hotshots located at four universities in the United States, England, and the United Arab Emirates. They had previously used crowdsourcing (and monetary incentives) to win a Pentagon-sponsored contest, finding 10 hot-air balloons around the United States in just nine hours.

In January, the team eagerly — and publicly — took up MyHeartMap Challenge.

Which irked Creighton.

“I got very territorial,” he said. “This is my city. You’re not coming in here and beating me.”

Since pavement-pounding and negotiating skills turned out to be crucial, the outsiders didn’t even come close.

“We weren’t able to find a single AED in Philadelphia,” said Manuel Cebrian at the University of California, San Diego.

Creighton, meanwhile, started out with an edge. A Red Cross CPR/AED instructor, the Fox Chase resident voluntarily oversees maintenance of defibrillators in the city’s high schools. His wife, Betty Ann, the School District’s director of health, safety and physical education, and his daughter Mary, a phys-ed teacher at Douglas High School, are also “passionate” about raising awareness.

They scoured health clubs, hotels, office buildings, police stations, recreation centers.

“People think I’m a little crazy when it comes to AEDs,” said Creighton, who may use $1,000 of the prize to buy one for his neighborhood elementary school.

Yuan, who lives in Center City and works in Penn’s information systems department, is also an enthusiastic winner. “My father has survived two heart attacks,” she said. “It would be great if everybody had that second chance.”

Yuan’s biggest coup was at the Federal Reserve building, where security is ultra-tight: “They checked me out, I made an appointment, and they were very helpful.”

She also had an unexpected rejection. She was allowed to photograph an AED in the lobby, but not one in the second-floor sports department of … The Inquirer. Even though the newspaper promoted the contest.

Dropping this reporter’s name did not help.

“The security guard called your desk but you weren’t there,” Yuan explained. “It was a Sunday.”

Contact Marie McCullough at 215-854-2720 or mmccullough@phillynews.com.

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