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HHS CTO Bryan Sivak Unveils New Initiatives in Open Data

At Open DataFest 2014, Sivak unveiled the department's most fundamental shifts since 1965.

by / January 22, 2014
Health and Human Services CTO Bryan Sivak speaks on open data initiatives at the Health & Human Services Open DataFest. Jason Shueh

Whether the conversation is about federal health data or health data housed at the state and local levels, major changes to that information may be on the way, according to Health and Human Services CTO Bryan Sivak.

Speaking Tuesday at the department's Open DataFest in Sacramento, Calif., Sivak called attention to major changes on the horizon for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). He also called on California officials to join the growing movement of open data in health care, an industry he estimated at $2.8 trillion per year and roughly 18 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.

"We're actually going through one of the most fundamental shifts in our history since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965,” Sivak said, referring to big data’s impact on national health care.

For the first time, he said, insights from big data are offering actionable and innovative solutions to health care by illuminating inefficiencies in how health-care providers serve patients, and by providing an easier way for patients to understand their health-care needs.

As an example, he pointed to the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) releasing inpatient and outpatient pricing data, a move that spotlighted thousands of dollars in overpriced procedures. He also highlighted health data initiatives such as Blue Button Plus, which offers a platform for downloadable health data for patients.

Sivak, often called an “Entrepreneur in Residence” for his innovative aims, said that for the past three years, an open data initiative has been underway at HHS to liberate data for more practical uses. Going forward, he said the agency is ramping up this effort through a new Open Data Execution Plan.

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Among the plan's objectives are significant changes in the way HHS opens up its data; the agency will be required to prioritize data offered to the public based on its value and usability. The plan is also attached to a policy-making arm, which Sivak said will ensure open data supports government transparency.


Fleshing out one of these new policies, he explained, HHS intends to roll out a new research requirement. This requirement would mandate that all of its departments publish research data on an expedited timeline after research has been completed -- if the funding for the project is above a certain dollar amount. While this policy has been implemented by other agencies, Sivak said it has not been a universal requirement for all HHS departments.

“The idea here is that if we can publish all of this research we've paid for and its data, this will obviously speed up the ability for people to access that information and hopefully provide new insights in rapid fashion,” Sivak said.

Reducing impediments to open data is another focus HHS has on tap for 2014 that could translate into major shifts in health care. In his presentation, Sivak mentioned what the CMS has called its new Virtual Research Data Center, a terminal HHS and CMS have collaboratively introduced that offers secure and large volume data access to approved users at greatly reduced costs.

This is important, Sivak noted, because the CMS data behind that terminal is a virtual holy grail of the nation’s health-care data -- data that could be used to literally revolutionize the way health care operates if put in the right hands.

"We're really looking for disruptors," he said, "both inside the organization and outside the organization."

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Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.

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