Free Data Spark Innovation, Proponents Say

One of the keys to successful health care innovation is the freeing-up of data, according to Todd Park, chief technology officer for the federal HHS.

“We are working on so many exciting things right now, but the initiative we’re most excited about is the health data initiative,” Park said. “We are unleashing the power of open data and open innovation.”

Park was one of a group of experts who convened in Sacramento Wednesday for a health information technology forum put on by the Center for Health Improvement. One of the co-sponsors was the California HealthCare Foundation, which publishes California Healthline.

The idea, Park said, is to make health information data more available, and then letting American innovators use the information to improve health care across the country.

“It’s incredibly simple and incredibly cheap,” Park said. “We’re taking existing data and making it more accessible, into machine readable data, which just means taking it out of PDFs and into XML or Excel spreadsheets.”

Park has a long list of innovations that have sprung from this open-data approach, including seeing patient satisfaction numbers show up on the online Bing search engine page, when people research where to go to get health care. The public health applications are endless, he said, such as the app that links GPS data to asthma medication use that helps people identify the recurring asthma-inducing trouble spots in their day.

The question for California is: Can this same approach be taken on a statewide level?

The short answer is yes, according to Andy Krackov of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health: “If the federal government can do it, then we can, too,” he said.

But it could be a little trickier than what the feds are doing, according to panelist Toby Ewing, a consultant with the state Senate Governance and Finance Committee.

“The value of information that California has is more useful than the information that finds its way to federal agencies,” Ewing said. “In some ways, we have much more detailed and nuanced information.”

That doesn’t mean it’s not doable, but it will take some thought, he said. “We have to do something differently,” Ewing said. “I don’t know if we’ve come to that level yet. … There’s this realization that harnessing information will help us. But we’re just not at this tipping point yet.”

In general, there is a willingness to “free the data” — but carefully, according to Ron Spingarn of the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development.

“The devil’s in the details, and the details are in data,” he said. “It is important to tease out what the intent of the original law was, and what the intent of the original data was. I think there’s a conflict between someone’s great intentions, and the reason some data laws were generated in the first place.”

Park’s advice was: “Start small. Take all the data that you have on PDFs, that are public documents right now, and change them to Excel or XML. And start from there.”

Some panelists said that sounded good to them.

“We sometimes see data sharing as an impossible challenge,” Ewing said. “But we’d like to figure out. How do we design the rules to help rather than make things harder? How do we design the rules to make the job easier?”

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