Making Data Cool for Non-Geeks: Highlights from the 2011 Culture of Data Conference

Todd Park gets more excited about health data than just about anyone I know. (And coming from a researcher at a health policy think tank, that means a lot!) Park’s official title is the Chief Technology Officer for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), but he primarily serves as entrepreneur-in-residence. Along with 200-plus other attendees, I was fortunate to hear him talk at the tenth annual Culture of Data conference last week, co-sponsored by CHI.

A title just as fitting might be “Chief Evangelist for the Health Data Liberation Movement.” With kinetic energy and great passion, Todd is leading the effort to “free the data” from within HHS, in hopes of transforming the agency into the “NOAA of health data.”

Here’s what he means by that reference: If you’ve ever checked the forecast at weather.com or watched The Weather Channel, you’ve used NOAA data. NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is a federal agency that tracks the condition of the oceans and atmosphere. Most private websites and apps that provide weather forecasts rely on NOAA data.

So it’s a great example of taking public data, which belongs to all of us, and letting smart people figure how to use it.

Todd quoted Joy’s Law (from Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy): “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” The key, then, is to leverage the work of others. HHS will never have the resources to design thousands of iPhone apps that transform how health care is delivered, but they can empower others—particularly those smart people in the private sector—to use the government’s health data to help the U.S. innovate ourselves out of our health care crisis.

Todd mentioned dozens of projects, but here are a few of my favorites:

  • Asthmapolis, a mobile phone app that collects data from an inhaler with a GPS device. Patients can track symptoms, attack triggers and inhaler use, all of which can be remotely monitored by their physician in order to better control their asthma.  Public health professionals can use aggregated data to identify patterns of disease and explore environmental exposures.
  • iTriage is a mobile and website application that connects patients to reliable medical information. iTriage’s Symptom-to-Provider pathway uses GPS technology to identify nearby clinic locations based on the type of care needed. The application has been downloaded millions of times in over 80 million countries. What’s especially cool is that iTriage is based in Lakewood. CO.
  • Food Oasis, a virtual grocery store powered by text messaging. While reliable computer access is far from universal in low-income communities, text messaging-enabled cellphones are common. Using data from the USDA, Food Oasis connects people living in food deserts with farmers selling healthy, affordable food. The farmers gather a number of orders and then arrange to drop off their veggies in a convenient location. This idea was developed during an eight-hour Code-A-Thon sponsored by HHS.
  • Todd even gets excited by the low-tech applications of the government’s data. Recognizing that a 75-year-old patient with three chronic diseases isn’t likely to spend a lot of time flipping through iPhone apps, a number of low-tech innovations are in the works.  Walgreens is piloting a “health concierge” program, cockpit of the latest health literature from the National Institutes of Health. Since the average Walgreens customer visits the store several times per week, this has tremendous potential for the treatment of chronic disease. (How many people do you know who visit their doctor several times per week?)

To learn more about Todd Park, download his presentation here, read about him in The Atlantic, or watch an excerpt of a presentation he gave last year.

Todd Park was just one speaker in an impressive line-up of health leaders. Michele Lueck, CHI’s president and CEO, opened the first panel of the day, “Policy: Using data and technology to improve Colorado’s health.” Michele provided an overview of the public and private investments that seek to transform Colorado’s health care system, such as CORHIO, CIVHC, and the Health Insurance Exchange. She also talked about how these investments, along with the Affordable Care Act, are incentivizing new behaviors in Colorado (slide #13).

[slideshare id=9650379&doc=cultureofdatapresentationmichele10-5-11ver2final-111011173834-phpapp01]

Other speakers included Phyllis Albritton of CORHIO, Dr. Sheana Bull of the Colorado School of Public Health, Colorado Senator Irene Aguilar, and Dr. Chris Urbina of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

You can view pictures from the Culture of Data Conference here, or download PowerPoint presentations from speakers here

Emily King is a research analyst at CHI.