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California Critiques State's Open Data Health Portal

Federal and state officials reviewed California's ground-breaking data portal for health care and discussed possible improvements at Open DataFest.

Open data is ushering in a new era in health care that will result in an improved health-care system with greater efficiencies and new ways to treat people. “Better care, smarter spending, and healthier people are all going to be data-driven activities in all parts of the country,” said Damon Davis, national health data director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Davis was speaking at California’s Health and Human Services Open DataFest, held March 16-17 in Sacramento, Calif. The event focused on open data strategies, improving skills, fostering collaboration and increasing data quantity. Organized by the nonprofit Stewards of Change and California’s Health and Human Services Agency, the conference drew a high level audience from across the state to review its open data portal, unveiled last year, and to chart an open data path for the organization’s many departments in 2015.

Davis discussed a wide range of initiatives, programs and apps related to the health data repository and the HHS IDEA Lab. Davis said data will continue to dominate reform in health care nationwide. Notably this will impact payments, an individual’s interaction with his or her health system through new devices like wearables and for treatment at the point of clinical care.

“What we’re trying to do at the department — and it is very much an ongoing process — is change the default setting of data from closed to open,” Davis said. 

To sustain such a push, will get a facelift to improve user experience, with more research and agency data sets, and a federal reach-out to California and other states through a new platform called Demand-Driven Open Data (DDOD). The site is led by David Portnoy, HHS entrepreneur-in-residence, who will direct a private and public crowdsourcing to help identify valuable open data sets. 

“The department does not have the resources to make all the data sets available all the time,” Davis said “So we have to figure out how to get demand and a signal from the noise so we can decide where we can prioritize.”

DataFest was a chance to critique and plan the next steps for California’s HHS Open Data Portal, which was first launched in August 2014. Suggestions for improvement, based on potential citizen users, called for more data and for usability improvements so data searches were similar across devices.

Dan Kim, the California Department of Public Health’s chief deputy director of operations, assessed the portal’s impact since it was first launched by Estella Geraghty, the portal’s former project leader. The portal has gained national exposure through U.S. media outlets, including The New York Times, which used its data to spotlight vaccination rates, and CNBC, which analyzed data to create an interactive map with the health data. Most notable might be the portal’s possible implications for health outcomes through transparency. 

Data on health-care-associated infection rates at hospitals has been published for the last three years, according to Kim. Web traffic at the portal went from 1,600 page views per year to a cumulative amount of more than a million views. Kim believes the portal’s year-over-year comparison tool may be contributing to the state’s lower infection rate overall.

“I think that [infection rates] are in some way influenced by the fact that we have this data posted publicly now,” Kim said.

Going forward, usability will be improved and data added as other state HHS departments bring more information online. Through the portal, HHS has developed a sustainable auditing process for data as well. 

“We want to be able to shop for data in the same way you shop for shoes in Zappos,” Kim said.

San Francisco and Los Angeles are updating their open data portals as well. Los Angeles Chief Data Officer Abhi Nemani also announced plans for a major update to the city’s portal that will make huge improvements for mobile users through the help of the open data company Socrata.

Not to be left behind, San Francisco’s Open Data Program Manager Jason Lally reported that San Francisco will be relaunching its open data portal sometime in April along with an updated index of San Francisco’s current data and there will also be adjustment to the city’s open data strategy that will come later this year.

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