HHS Tries to Sell Startups on Open Data

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In addition to opening certain data sets to the public, the department is trying to get entrepreneurs to come up with new ways to use that data.

For years, the Department of Health and Human Services has published selected data sets on HealthData.gov, as part of the so-called open data movement.

But officials there have learned it's not enough to just provide data; now, the department is attempting to drum up interest among tech entrepreneurs who might analyze that data or use it to build new products.   

On Thursday night, HHS hosted an event at 1776, a Washington-based incubator, business accelerator and startup hub in an effort to reach those tech entrepreneurs.

HHS and Interior Department officials in attendance urged health-focused entrepreneurs to consider including nontraditional data sets -- ones that don't have to do with health directly -- in their analyses.

For instance, the National Park Service stores more than 1,000 data sets about parks, such as water quality stats lists of vegetation and animal species by location, said Lt. Cmdr. Adam Kramer of the U.S. Public Health Service.

"We basically serve as the internal health department for those parks," Kramer said.

If someone were to examine NPS data in conjunction with other health data, and determined a local population needed to exercise more, the agency could find ways to encourage them to do so, he added. "We have the ability to affect chronic disease," he said.

Still, getting the word out about what kinds of data the government houses and its practical applications remains elusive.

"I think a lot of people in the tech space have a nebulous understanding" of how much health-related data is publicly available, Manik Bhat, chief executive officer of New York-based startup Healthify, told Nextgov in an email. "I think what would help is making case studies and success stories with the usage of that data more prominent in their view so that they can think creatively about how to use the data."

Healthify's software service asks patients a series of simple questions about employment, housing, mental health and other topics to determine the types of benefits and other social services for which they are eligible. The product relies on federal data sets about health centers, home health agencies and Department of Veterans Affairs services, Bhat said.

Bhat also spoke about open data on a panel at the event.  While federal data sets are integral to the product, “we would like to see data being released in standard formats, if available," he told HHS leaders.

Connecting tech talent to various health data sets could also benefit the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said Stephen Cha, the agency's chief medical officer. Sophisticated algorithms can predict which beneficiaries are more likely to frequently use certain health care services based on electronic health records and public data, he said.

(Image via Pavel Ignatov/Shutterstock.com)

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