2012 Health Datapalooza Takes Pulse of Open Data Movement

The future of health IT and open data were on display in Washington, D.C., this week at the 2012 Health Datapalooza, co-sponsored by the Health Data Initiative and the Obama administration.
by | June 6, 2012 AT 3:30 PM

Could this be the future of health IT? An application designed by the University of Rochester trolls social networks for reports of illness and overlays that information with data from the Environmental Protection Agency to form disease “heat maps.” The HealthyState mobile application, created by University of Indiana students, mines the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Health Indicators Warehouse to form a data-driven portrait of each state’s health.

That was vision of open data on display this week at the 2012 Health Datapalooza in Washington, D.C., organized by the Health Data Initiative and sponsored by groups such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the California Health Care Foundation and HHS.

One hundred applications and websites, all powered by open data, took center stage at the exposition. In their honor, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park announced a revamped HealthData.gov during his opening keynote address Tuesday.

“More and more innovation is happening with more and more data being made available,” Park said. “Health data is no longer a government initiative. It is an American initiative.”

Public health is playing a primary role in the health open data movement. The Healthy Communities Institute won first place in the event's Community category (the others were Consumer and Care) for its Healthy Communities Network. The network, designed for local health departments and community organizations, is already in use in 35 states. The platform allows users to access various dashboards centered on different health indicators (such as obesity) and pulls available data to outline a community’s current situation. Links are also provided to federal, state and local resources related to the selected issue.

These efforts aren’t limited to the applications showcased at the Health Datapalooza’s expo this week: New York City, for example, has gained nationwide attention for its open data initiative. The city recently released a template for offering local health departments' restaurant inspection records in an open data format. The goal is to allow restaurant-oriented social websites, such as Yelp and UrbanSpoon, to access the data and integrate it into their presentation. That would give consumers access to information they might otherwise be unaware of, said Andrew Nicklin, head of technology research and development and open strategies for the New York City government.

“We want to provide information that consumers can use,” Nicklin said. “It is critical that we get data into the hands of consumers.”

The health open data movement is likely to only grow. The Health Data Initiative’s first forum in 2010 started with 45 attendees. The 2012 Health Datapalooza is expected to draw up to 1,600 people. Consumer-focused applications continue to gain popularity: one statistic touted at this week’s expo was the 6 million downloads for the iTriage iPhone app, which allows users to run through a checklist of symptoms and then schedule a doctor’s appointment.

“In health care, we’ve only begun to put these tools to use,” said Bill Corr, deputy secretary at HHS. “We’ve only scratched the surface.”