HHS aims to drive down health care costs with transparency

The Health and Human Services Department wants to use the "NOAA model" to bring down health care costs, its chief technology officer said Tuesday.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration "collects tons of weather data and publishes it online in machine-readable, downloadable form for anyone for free," HHS CTO Todd Park said. "That has seeded, over the decades, a massive array of innovations in the private sector, ranging from weather websites to weather insurance and weather mobile apps."

In a similar fashion, HHS hopes by publicly releasing as much government-gathered health data as possible, it can spur private sector innovations that improve biomedical research, raise the quality of public health programs and introduce new efficiencies that lower the cost of health insurance, Park said.

During the past two years, HHS has released new data gathered by its agencies in organized, searchable and machine-readable data sets on Health.data.gov. The department also has started transferring to the site old data that has been publicly released already, but in forms that make it difficult for the private sector to work with.

"A lot of our data that's public is public in the sense that it's in books, publication, PDFs and scattered websites," Park said. "We're now taking that information and turning it into computable data sets [that are] downloadable and machine readable . . . so developers from third-party services and applications can get that data and turn it into much goodness for the American people."

Parks was speaking at a daylong conference on federal information technology and personnel issues sponsored by FedsScoop, a media company that focuses on government IT.

The HHS initiatives are part of the Obama administration's early governmentwide transparency push. The programs are focused as much or more on producing fodder for private sector entrepreneurs as on the traditional transparency motivators of rooting out government fraud and holding public officials accountable.

In addition to simply releasing federal data, the Open Government Initiative allows agencies to use a small portion of their budgets to sponsor challenges and competitions to create software and other products that benefit government and citizens.

HHS has used part of its challenge money to fund a series of "code-a-thons," which Park described as similar to a drunken competitive hacking scene in the film the Social Network, but without the alcohol.

The team that won a recent HHS code-a-thon at Georgetown University developed a text messaging system to link families living in so-called food deserts with farmers' market vendors.

The plan is for families to text fruit and vegetable orders to a farmers' database. When the farmers have enough orders to make a trip worthwhile, they text back a time and location for a market. In addition to bringing fresh fruit and vegetables to neighborhoods that lack them, the clearer picture of consumer demand the program offers should reduce risk for the farmers and drive down prices, Park said.

The developers have drawn some interest from industry investors and plan to launch a beta version of the program in several cities soon, Park said.

Officials have said the Challenge.gov initiative may have to be scrapped or downsized in 2012 because of cuts of more than 75 percent to the e-government fund connected with attempts to reduce the federal budget deficit. The e-gov fund pays for many of the administration's transparency initiatives.