CTO shares lessons learned from freeing HHS data

The Health and Human Services Department has been pushing out its data in recent months and the results have sparked innovation and helped consumers, Chief Technology Officer Todd Park said at a new media conference.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was updated March 18, 2011 to correct the website iTriageHealth.com.

The Health and Human Services Department has been “freeing” massive amounts of its data and pushing it to developers and the public on the Web for the last two years with good results, HHS Chief Technology Officer Todd Park said at a new media conference Thursday.

He said consumers now have access to dozens of new Web and mobile applications that use HHS data. Most of the applications are available for free, created by private sector developers and volunteers at no cost to HHS or the public.

For example, consumers can look on Bing.com search results for nearby hospitals to see their patient satisfaction ratings, or access iTriageHealth.com on the Web to get a list of nearby health clinics.

By releasing the data, HHS set innovation in motion, helping to spur job creation and benefits for consumers, Park said at the General Services Administration’s Government Web and New Media Conference.

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HHS’ role was to publish data it already owned on the Web — which cost “less than HHS’ coffee budget” — and to make people aware of the opportunity, and the rest happened through a ripple effect of volunteer developers and entrepreneurs, he said.

“The best part is that we didn’t do anything! And we had 20-plus applications built in the first 90 days,” Park said. “Can you imagine if we had to issue an RFP [request for proposal]?”

“It has been incredibly inspiring,” Park added. “The most entrepreneurial experience I have ever had has been in the United States government.”

Federal agencies need to practice “data jujitsu” by learning to not only publish their data but to take the next step of collaborating with multiple communities, chopping the data into smaller pieces and marketing it so it can be used more readily by consumers and practitioners, Park said.

HHS agencies, such as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute, regularly collect large amounts of data as part of their missions. Publishing the data in machine-readable formats on the Web is the easy part of liberating the data, Park said.

The more time-consuming aspect of freeing government data is marketing the data to get developers excited about creating new applications for it, he added.

“If we published the data and we did not market it, what do you think would happen? Nothing,” Park said. “Publishing the data is 2 percent and marketing is 98 percent.”

To market its data, HHS has created several challenges on the GSA website Challenge.gov and partnered with several organizations to do more challenges, such as Health2challenge.org. It also has sponsored volunteer computer code-writing sessions and conferences, including an upcoming event on June 9 to highlight open government activities.

By making the data available, HHS hopes to spark “a self-propelled health data ecosystem” that will operate on its own without ongoing HHS involvement, Park added.

“It is already out of control, and I could not be more thrilled about that,” Park said. “Putting the data into the hands of consumers is having a colossal impact.”