‘Free Data’ Movement Gets Boost From Big Conference

Bradley Kreit takes exception to the term “big data.” That’s one of the relatively newer buzz-phrases of the technology world, referring to the massive amounts of stored data we, as a society, are trying to harness and use.

“Big data implies that it’s a problem for you, because you somehow have too much information. You have this sense that people are wondering how we’re going to manage all of that,” said Kreit, co-director of the Health Horizons Program at the Palo Alto-based Institute for the Future.

“But it’s not big data,” Kreit said, emphatically. “It’s abundant data.”

The opportunities created by making public health data free are as immense as the mountains of data themselves, Kreit said last week at the Healthy Communities Data Summit in San Francisco. The daylong event at UC-San Francisco’s Mission Bay campus was hosted by Health 2.0 and the Foundation for Healthcare Innovation. California HealthCare Foundation, which publishes California Healthline, sponsored the event.

For instance, Kreit said, a fire chief from San Ramon was out at lunch one day, and while he was sitting at his table, he heard the distant sound of sirens. Minutes later, those sirens got closer and louder, until he realized they were about to stop right near him. The fire chief had the epiphany that if he’d known about the emergency at the same time as the first-responding fire engine’s crew, he could have actually helped someone minutes earlier, Kreit said. Those minutes can sometimes be the difference between life and death.

And an app was born.

“It’s a simple app to alert any trained responder about an [emergency] event nearby,” Kreit said. “That fire chief found he soon had an army of trained first responders,” who were often on the scene in moments.

In fact, he said, the city of San Ramon had a run on first-responder training classes because so many people wanted to make sure they were up-to-date on training now that their skills might be used at any time.

“That app, it was completely open-sourced,” Kreit said. “It shows how you can take innovation and data that’s available, and spread it to the general community. In this world with so much information,” he said, “it’s all about how you get the right information at the right time to the right people.”

‘Free the Data’ Movement Growing

The idea behind the national “Free the Data” movement is to make broad reported health information available to the public and let developers use that data to design applications that benefit society, often in unforeseen ways, according to Saf Rabah, vice president of marketing for Socrata, a Seattle-based cloud software company that focuses on democratizing access to government data. 

“When you give this information to developers, it’s virtually limitless what creative people can do,” Rabah said. “It’s all about getting this information out of data siloes and into machine-readable format.”

That’s one reason the San Francisco conference was so important, said Wil Yu, director of the Foundation for Healthcare Innovation. “We have people here [at the conference] from academia, we have providers, and IT people, developers, web designers,” Yu said. “We are breaking down the walls of these institutional ghettoes.”

The idea, he said, is to combine people’s expertise — such as epidemiology and graphic arts — to turn ideas into action.

Abhi Nemani is chief of staff of Code for America, a not-for-profit based in San Francisco that tries to improve government through better use of technology and the Internet. Nemani calls it the Peace Corps for geeks.

“Certain people are belief-driven about open data, they think open data is the best thing ever,” he said. “But if you can position an argument or project that’s pragmatic, you’ll get a far more broad-based adoption, in terms of outcome.”

Successful Open Data Efforts

Nemani told a story about Boston school district officials who wanted to postpone a meeting with Nemani and colleagues because of a snowstorm. School officials were swamped answering all of the phone calls from parents who wanted information about where exactly the school buses with their children were.

“We looked at them and said, ‘Oh my! How is this the way you’re doing all of this?’ Because they’ve had snow before and here, no one could do any work [because] they were all answering the phones.”

So Nemani took the available public data of the bus schedule and system, and posted it online in map form. “It made it easier to understand,” he said.

Parents got answers quickly, more easily, and school officials got relief from new-snow headaches. But it took a kind of leap of faith for school officials to agree to the plan, even one as simple as that, Nemani said.

“Sometimes data is scary,” Nemani said. “Publishing data is scary. But you have to look past this and solve the problem. When you show a real-use case that succeeds, then people want more.”

California’s Office of Environmental Health has used existing public data to create its own set of online maps to give a clearer picture of health disparities throughout California, said Laura August, a research scientist at the OEH’s Hazard Assessment division.

“It’s called CalEnviroScreen,” August said. “It’s a geographically based tool that shows socioeconomic and health status indicators to help us prioritize our resources and look at health problems more holistically.”

There are 2,000 ZIP codes in California, and within each area, there are 18 health indicators. Information is combined from the Census Department, the Department of Public Health and other agencies, she said. “We combined all of these together, and you can see which areas have higher incidence of health conditions than others. The higher the percentile, the worse it is.”

San Francisco has a number of free-data initiatives, including the publishing of health code ratings on Yelp restaurant reviews, which has reduced the incidence of foodborne diseases, city officials said.

A map recently published by CHCF, called “All Over the Map,” shows the geographic variation in cost for a number of elective health procedures.

In each of these cases, the power of information is immense. Freeing the data, conference participants said, is a quick and relatively easy way to introduce that information to the broader community, where it can do some good.

“Putting data out there,” said Andy Krackow, senior program officer at CHCF, “is an effective way to help the community be able to handle some of these issues.”

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