Todd Park speaks: Free the data!

Todd Park is definitely one of health care IT’s good guys. Todd was the brains (but not the mouth!) behind athenahealth. Since he left athenahealth, he spent a year back in California doing angel investing (Ventana among others) and being a dad. But despite his desire to stay on the west coast, he was dragged into the vortex known as Washington DC, and for the last 5 months he’s been the (first) CTO of HHS. (BTW he cashed out his investments, and politely turned down my proposal to “care for” his cash while he was being a public servant!)

Yesterday at the Health IT Summit for Government Leaders, Todd gave the keynote. He describes his job as unlocking HHS’ “inner mojo” in terms of data use and technology innovation. So what are the big deals he sees? (These are my notes on his fast talking!)

1) HITECH/ARRA was not about for paying for software. It’s to incent “meaningful use”. He wants to make sure that people understand that the NHIN (National Health Information Network) is not a thing. It’s a set of policies and services that people can use to make health data work over the Internet. It is NOT a parallel network. And at the end of the day, what’s going to make this work is the private sector — including vendors modifying their products to match these policies.

2) Leveraging the power of HHS data for public good. The amount of data HHS has is “ridiculous”. It has a set of sets of data. Todd is a paid up member of Tim Berners-Lee “free the data” club. They’re adding all kinds of data sets to including every grant, patent et al licensed/paid for by HHS. Todd calls this “data liberacion”. They’re also creating community health maps where data on community health performance can be mashed up with other types of maps (real estate, job listings, et al). In addition they’re doing “smart targeting”—it’s an attempt to combine findings from different/disparate data sets without waiting to do the big database integration. He’s hoping to use techniques from the intelligence community that it uses to link, say emails and bank wires, to do something similar to track, say, disease outbreaks, drug interactions, etc.

3) The power of networking. HHS has started by using the power of YouTube to crowdsource a public service announcement, and the contest itself got a huge bunch of publicity. They’ve also created a food safety widget that can be put into different sites. He now wants to add this type of crowdsourcing to the community health maps—he thinks that the country can become a giant learning lab. At the moment there’s huge irrational variation in across geography “heat maps” of data on not just cost, but also all types of health measures. Todd says that some parts of America have already solved many problems, but they need to get the word out. He thinks that networking will get this done! Todd wants to “smart bomb” some internal barriers to making some of this stuff work.

Matthew’s take: Todd, with Aneesh Chopra, Will Yu and many others who’ve newly joined the Federal government, are awash with new ideas…and very hopeful about using the tools of Web 2.0 and data leverage to get stuff done. And with good reason as this has worked well in the private sector (outside of health care). The question, as ever, is whether using data and technology to show problems and show potential solutions will be enough in a health care system that tends to eat and destroy useful innovation—especially where it threatens established (if irrational) income streams.

But the most encouraging thing (and my tea leaf reading suggests that Todd and Aneesh are pretty much directly responsible for this) is the clarification that the Internet is the national health information network, and that web-based tools technologies and infrastructure that have been so effective in the rest of society, are going to be the basis for the future of Federal health care IT planning.

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