Residents of North Long Beach, Calif., are now able to find a plethora of healthy community resources through their mobile devices, thanks to the new Go Uptown app.

The app, one of six Go Long Beach apps the city offers users about municipal resources, was launched in June to coincide with a gala street festival. It works on both Apple iOS and Android devices and includes a combination of community resources including special events and programs and the location of health-enhancing features such as farmers' markets, community gardens, parks, and playgrounds.

The app is part of a comprehensive effort to improve the community health of North Long Beach through a $1 million, three-year grant from Kaiser Permanente to encourage its HEAL (Healthy Eating Active Living) program. In 2012, Kaiser awarded six communities in southern California with high rates of obesity and other health disparities grants to develop HEAL Zones. The North Long Beach HEAL Zone effort is being spearheaded overall by the Coalition for a Healthy North Long Beach, a community-based advocacy collaborative, and administered by the city health department.

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According to Long Beach City Councilman Rex Richardson, whose constituency includes the HEAL Zone, the development of the app was a serendipitous outgrowth of a discussion about ensuring children's safety en route to school and back home.

"When the HEAL Zone began three years ago, there was significant outreach around a community action plan, and we talked about making safe routes to school more accessible and more interesting, and that began a whole conversation about what people use now to navigate – and they use mobile apps," Richardson said. "Wouldn't it be cool if there was, in one app, the means to find all your healthy corner stores, all your parks, all your farmers' markets and community gardens, all your summer programming, library programming and special events? The conversation began simply about safe routes to school, but evolved into something much larger and more useful."

Richardson said the HEAL Zone initiative has already resulted in significant improvements in North Long Beach, including the creation of a farm stand at a local elementary school, new basketball courts, a playground and fitness stations at a park that hadn't been updated in many years through a partnership with the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, and the creation of walking and exercise loops in Houghton Park.

"So, the residents who have been engaged in the HEAL Zone have definitely seen the progress over time and see the benefits of being a HEAL Zone city," Richardson said.

Ideally, he said, the app and the HEAL Zone-inspired activities and facilities will feed into each other – residents will be able to have information on the resources at their fingertips, and city officials and private sector partners such as businesses promoting their own healthy offerings will be able to see what's working and what isn't in the drive to improve community health.

Eventually, he said, city officials may decide to scale the app citywide, though he is content for the present to fine-tune it within the original HEAL Zone.

"It began in the HEAL Zone, so it's a point of pride for many of the residents who are involved in it," he said. "And it is scalable, once we have it worked out, to go citywide if folks want to do that."

Susan Price,  the city health department's community health bureau manager, administers the HEAL Zone funding and said that, while the zone's initial funding expires at the end of September, Kaiser has invited the city to apply for the next phase of the project, which she envisions to focus on healthy food access and improved alternative transportation resources.

Presently, Price said, the app provides "fundamental" information, though city officials and the app's designers did discuss somehow including activity tracker functions. Eventually, she said, the app may link to users' existing phone-based trackers, which could enable the health department to measure aggregate wellness data.

Thus, far, she said, there has been no involvement in app design or rollout from any of the city's healthcare delivery systems, though that aspect of digital health has not been neglected in the city – in April, Long Beach launched, a web site featuring community-based health access metrics as well as best practice resources from around he globe.

The combination of the brick-and-mortar HEAL Zone improvements, the digital platforms that will help a wide variety of users, and a nationwide emphasis on improving the social determinants of health place Long Beach in good stead to see tangible results from projects inside and outside the HEAL Zone, Price said.

"When you get the opportunity to do a pilot, you innovate. You try things," she said. "Not everything works, but you fail forward, and you're making incremental progress all the while. The sky's the limit. There is a tremendous political will in Long Beach, and there is a collaboration between city departments to leverage our existing resources to make some of these things happen."

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