PHILADELPHIA More than two years ago, the University of Pennsylvania announced a project to expand the use of portable heart-shocking defibrillators with a new smartphone application.
That app is still "a few months" from being ready, according to project director Raina Merchant.
But on Thursday, Penn plans to announce a lower-tech approach to promoting automatic external defibrillator (AED) use: a contest to develop "public art" that would call attention to the devices.
Or at least some devices.
"We're hoping to do 10 to 15 of these" art installations in Philadelphia, Merchant said.
The first, designed and funded mostly by Penn for $6,000 (about three times the cost of an AED), calls attention to an AED at 30th Street Station, near the Au Bon Pain cafe. The art, fashioned by assistant professor of fine arts Orkan Telhan and his team, consists of chairs shaped like the letters A, E, and D, and a sign with the contest's "you can be a hero" logo.
The idea is that by spotlighting AEDs, bystanders will remember where the devices are located and can use one on a cardiac arrest victim. Data from a federal registry indicate that the potentially lifesaving machines are used less than 3 percent of the time when they are needed and available.
"Our vision is that this project improves AED awareness, empowers bystanders, and ultimately improves cardiac arrest outcomes," said Merchant, a Penn emergency medicine physician.
Merchant, whose interest in AEDs began in medical school, readily admits that the goal of improving usage has been tougher to attain than she expected.
"It seems like an easy thing," she said. "What I've realized along the way is, it's not easy and there isn't one solution."
She and her Penn colleagues hoped that using online technology would make it easier. Their MyHeartMap contest, announced in December 2011, theorized that crowdsourcing and social media would enable international teams to hunt down an estimated 5,000 public AEDs in Philadelphia. Smartphones would be used to send in the location data, which, in turn, would be grist for an interactive AED registry tied to the city's 911 system and the new smartphone application.
As it turned out, the contest winners were two dogged local folks who used shoe leather, not the Internet, to find hundreds of AEDs. Also, there were fewer than 1,500 AEDs in the city, not 5,000 - although Merchant said the database now contains more than 9,000 AED locations throughout Pennsylvania.
The data are being refined on a website, but "when we tried to make a phone app to use in real time, we found a lot of problems," she said.
Meanwhile, PulsePoint Foundation, a nonprofit based in San Francisco, has created a free app that notifies citizens trained in resuscitation methods of nearby cardiac emergencies and the location of the nearest public AED. It is being used in communities in California and beyond.
MyHeartMap and the new contest, called DefibDesignChallenge.com, have gotten about $30,000 in funding from AED manufacturers. People who submit art designs that are selected by a judging committee could win from $100 to $1,000, Merchant said.
It is not clear where the winning designs would go. Except for 30th Street Station, Penn has not lined up any companies or agencies who want to make their AEDs more noticeable, Merchant said.
"This is really about, can we get a conversation about AEDs going, and get people to go around and look at them?" she said.