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Open Data is Inevitable

Speakers at the 2014 HHS Open DataFest envision open government data as a standard practice of the future.

The afternoon of Wednesday, Jan. 22, marked the end of Open DataFest, a two-day symposium held by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Sacramento, Calif., that highlighted the latest developments in government data and urged officials to launch their own open data efforts.

The takeaways from the event were diverse and came from government, private and non-profit organizations, each voicing unique perspectives from their particular niches. It could be said that two themes emerged as most prevalent throughout the event, the first being that open data for government is now seen as nearly inevitable considering its benefits. The second was that open data will require a deliberate and wide-sweeping effort across agencies to ensure data is harnessed effectively.

“Make no mistake the benefits will be substantial” said Dwayne Spradlin, CEO of the Health Data Consortium, an organization that promotes innovative data use in health care.

Spradlin, in his Wednesday presentation titled National Open Data Trends and Strategic Goals, referenced a study that estimated big data use could potentially reduce national health care spending by $300 billion to $450 billion per year.

Identifying key drivers of open data, Spradlin said a number of factors are providing the big push. He listed the Affordable Care Act’s shifts in health-care reform and the rise of analytical, evidence-based approaches to health care among top catalysts.

“If you’re going to drive some kind of system-wide change at this level, you have to have a forcing function,” he said.

Below are a few other notable highlights from the symposium:

California HHS Data Portal:
Estella Geraghty, deputy director for the Center for Health Statistics and Informatics at the California Department of Public Health, announced updates on a new HHS data portal for California that would open up multiple data sets to the public. Geraghty said a study group was formed in October 2013 from senior state and county leaders to guide the project, which is expected to be launched as a pilot and gradually refined in the next two years. Geraghty said the group's primary task right now is identifying which data sets will be of the most worth. Current data sets on the short list include birth data, anonymous STD data (excluding HIV), California Wellness Plan data, baby names, data that is an indicator of community health, and health-care associated infections.

Learn as You Go
Undoubtedly, and notwithstanding open data’s big draw, it was drastically apparent open data is very new to many government officials. Questions during many at the breakout sessions revolved around potential impediments surrounding open data. Chief among these was how data could be integrated between agencies that may classify data differently, and how workflows could be built to support open data projects.

To help avoid this paralysis by analysis, U.S. Health and Human Services CTO Bryan Sivak encouraged everyone on day one of the event to start small. He suggested a four-step process:

  1. Identify a single data set of value;
  2. Find a need its publication could answer;
  3. Connect that open data to skilled individuals (public or private) who want to answer that need (such as an app developer); and
  4. Use the finished product as a case for future use of additional open data projects.
Open Data’s Pot of Gold
The pot of gold at the end of open data’s not-too-distant rainbow was firmly pointed out by government and private-sector attendees. Open data benefits in health care include cheaper health care, procedure-based hospital selection, predictive analytics for social needs, interagency collaboration for better services, reduced use of redundant projects, and a simpler and more transparent understanding of personal health care for patients. Among attending speakers and many attendees, the ideas for open data were an easy sell, even if the path to support it was still unclear.

Map It
The last prevalent theme in the conference extoled mapping and the geographic insight open data can offers. Bill Davenhall, a senior health advisor at data mapping company Esri, showcased maps that pinpointed data on diabetes, cancer, gun deaths, young adult mortality rates, toxicity levels and national regions where potentially harmful drugs are prescribed to senior citizens. Davenhall argued open data practices would increase geographic awareness in areas where services are most needed. Evidence of current California data mapping projects were detailed by Louise Bedsworth, deputy director at the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, who showcased updates to California’s GeoPortal, a site with interactive state maps on various public issues.

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