The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) hasn’t traditionally been thought of as a bold, risk-taking agency. HHS Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Todd Park has been working hard to change that. Park, who co-founded healthcare technology firm Athenahealth and later Castlight Health, was offered his current position two years ago. HHS asked Park to come work for them as an entrepreneur in residence. “The [CTO] job title is a little bit of a red herring; I actually don’t run technology at HHS. I’m 100% focused on being an internal change agent,” Park said at a recent roundtable meeting with journalists on September 23. His main task is to help the agency figure out how to tap “the power of data and technology in innovative ways to improve the health of the American people.”
“They brought me in as an entrepreneur,” Parks says. “But what I would say is that the most entrepreneurial years of my life have been the last two, because [HHS has been] launching initiatives that behave very much like Silicon Valley startups,” he explains. “There are interdisciplinary teams that work on Silicon Valley time in hyperrapid cycles in a really lean, startup style way. And these incredibly talented groups of HHS-ers have done just incredible things.”
The first example Park cited was the Health Data Initiative. “Basically it’s an initiative to turn HHS into what we are calling the NOAA [pronounces “Noah”] of health data. “NOAA actually, pretty famously, not just collects tons and tons of weather data, but publishes it online in machine-readable format, downloadable by anybody for free without intellectual property constraint,” Park says. “It then feeds a massive array of private sector innovations like Weather Channel, Weather.com, iPhone weather apps, etc. that creates huge value for the American people.”
Park also points out the availability of GPS data, which was made public in the 80’s. That data now feeds everything from FourSquare, supertanker navigation systems, and everything in between, he says. The Health Data Initiative is an attempt to do the same thing for healthcare. “We want to open up the data and stimulate massive private sector innovation play—this time, with vast amounts of health-related data that are sitting in the vaults of HHS.”
HHS is releasing data that has never been released before and also improving access to data that has already been published. “[This data] has been public in the sense that it’s in books, PDFs, and static webpages, and we’re turning it into forms that developers can actually use,” Park explains. This will “enable the data to become liquid and then be used as fuel for other applications, services, and products.”
“We are marketing the bejesus out of our data to the innovators of the country,” Park says. Park referenced an “unscientific, but pretty definitive survey of innovators” that indicated 98% of the people capable of doing stuff with with the data didn’t even know that we had this data, let alone that we were making it available to them.”
An Ecosystem of Innovation and Joy’s Law
HHS has set up a site to help get the word out that this data is available: Health.Data.gov. The objective is to “[stimulate] innovators to use our data as fuel in applications, products, and services that improve health and healthcare, and create jobs at the same time,” Park says. The real goal behind the efforts is to “stimulate the emergence of an ecosystem of innovation that sits on top of open health data,” he adds.
“The fundamental precept that drives the whole thing is one our favorite laws in the universe—Joy’s Law,” he adds. “Bill Joy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, famously said once that no matter who you are, you have to remember that most of the smart people in the world work for someone else.”
Park seeks to exploit Joy’s law to drive innovation. As he explained at the roundtable discussion:
And so the whole underlying assumption behind the Health Data Initiative Forum is that the best way for us to have our data to have a positive impact is not just for our own smart people to use it, but for all of the other smart people in the world to be able to get access to it and use it to improve health and healthcare.
Maybe the best example of how it has mushroomed is […] “Health Data-Palooza.” (I think the formal name was the Health Data Initiative Forum, but I keep calling it the “Health Data-Palooza.”) And it was executed by the Institute of Medicine and by HHS in Bethesdsa, Maryland, actually. And we issued a open call for people to submit proposals to do TED-style talks—basically short, focused presentations of services, applications, solutions they had built that were powered in part by our data that helped consumers take control of their own health and healthcare, get the information that they need, help doctors and hospitals deliver better care, help employers promote health and wellness, help journalists write better stories, help mayors make better decisions, etc. And the criteria were: they had to add value for one of those constituencies in a very concrete way and secondly, the innovation had to have a sustainable business model. So we weren’t interested in [something analogous to] concept cars that no one would drive; we only were interested in services that could be delivered to actual people, today. Even with those criteria, only 18 months into this, we were overwhelmed by the number of people who had solutions that were compelling. We ended up doing an American Idol-style bake off process, where the innovators would present and the judges would give thumbs up or thumbs down.
We like to joke now that I was Paula Abdul. I was weeping constantly in joy. Greg [Downing] [Program Director, Personalized Health Care Initiative at HHS] was Simon Cowell saying, well, I don’t know. So with Greg’s help we were able to narrow it down to about 50 companies and other organizations that had deployed these incredible solutions and, if you are curious to see what they are all about, you can go to the Institute of Medicine’s website and look up the June 9th, 2011 Health Data Initiative Forum and you can see all 50-some presentations and they are incredibly inspiring and just illustrate how beautifully out of control this whole ecosystem is already.
Park adds that there a number of other initiatives and policies that are in place, like ones mentioned above and the CMS Innovation Center, “that are explicitly meant to catalyze innovation across the country.” Of course, it’s important for innovators to actually know that this work is going on. “So, we’ve been doing a ton and we are going to do a lot more outreach to the innovator community to help them understand what we are trying to do to be helpful and, A, you know, we hope that helps to catalyze activity, which it definitely has been, and B, get feedback about what we are doing so we can actually improve it. Because the point of all of this is work is to support them.”
Editor’s Note: This blog post will the first in a series. Check back soon for more with Todd Park…