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CIO - The white-hot controversy surrounding President Obama's healthcare overhaul -- grabbing headlines again amid the latest round of budget fights -- has largely overshadowed other areas where the administration is crafting health policy, including how to wring more value from the vast stores of data maintained by the federal government.
Historically, data sets about disease rates, clinical records, Medicare billing and other issues have been kept tight under lock and key within the sprawling confines of the country's largest health-data warehouse.
Freeing Data to Public
Many of them still are, to be sure. But administration officials have been warming to the potential to improve patient outcomes and lower costs by releasing more health data to the public, inviting developers, researchers and others to comb through the data sets that the government has compiled, according to Bryan Sivak, the CTO of the Department of Health and Human Services.
"Data is a big part of the future of healthcare in this country," Sivak said in a keynote address here at a health care policy conference hosted lasat week by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, a not-for-profit group focused that works to advance health IT.
HHS's efforts fall within a broader administration initiative to advance open data policies. Most recently, that effort produced an executive order directing agencies to establish open, machine-readable formats as the default for government information.
At HHS, the push toward open data led to the creation of HealthData.gov, a clearinghouse for data sets encompassing everything from vaccination rates to hospital comparisons freely available for download.
"We want to make this data as easy to find and use as, say, using OpenTable to make a dinner reservation. So that's why we created HealthData.gov in the first place, which is really the central catalog that we have in the department for all of the data sets that we can find," Sivak said.
The portal launched in 2010 with about 30 data sets. The catalog has since swollen to include more than 1,000, and now offers at least one from every operating division within the department.
Making Data Both Open and Useful
Sivak boasted that in that short time, the department has widely embraced the culture of open data, what he described as a significant turnaround (if still a work in progress) in an area of the government that oversees stores of highly sensitive information.
"The default setting within HHS has really changed from closed to open," Sivak said.
But HHS's work doesn't end with making the data available. Sivak, a veteran of the software industry, is well-aware that open data doesn't necessarily mean useful data. After all, if the research outputs of the National Institutes of Health or Centers for Disease Control were all published in PDF format, they would be of scant use to the developer or entrepreneur looking to build an app or even a business on top of that information.
Instead, in the spirit of Obama's directive on machine-readable data, Sivak and his team are encouraging healthcare workers and researchers both within and outside the federal government to adopt common, developer-friendly formats for the new data sets they create. Additionally, the tech team at HHS behind HealthData.gov is working to convert older data sets into a machine-readable format as they come online and are available for download.