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Environmental Factor, May 2012

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Presidential advisor discusses Health Data Initiative

By Ian Thomas

Todd Park

Park’s enthusiasm and humor were infectious, as he used the word awesome several times to describe the potential of integrated data for advancing a range of public and private endeavors. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

Park’s host was NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., who monitored the question and answer session that followed the talk. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Chief Technology Officer Todd Park gave a spirited talk to NIEHS scientists and staff about the Health Data Initiative (HDI), a monumental federal effort to make all HHS research data available to the public for electronic download. The seminar April 5 in Rodbell Auditorium outlined a wide range of programs, incentives, and competitions designed to foster healthcare innovation in both the public and private sectors. 

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“By liberating all of our data for public access, we’re allowing everyone in the industry to use it as fuel for new ideas,” explained Park, who likened HDI to a similar data-sharing initiative by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Once that happens, innovation spreads like wildfire in the form of products, services, and programs, all of which help consumers take control of their own healthcare, by putting more information at their fingertips.”

It is that sort of innovation that defines Park’s role with HHS.

“My job is to work with our smartest minds to dream up, put together, and execute, at high speed, ideas and initiatives that harness the power of data, tech, and innovation to improve the health and well-being of the American people,” said Park, who now doubles as the U.S. Chief Technology Officer and Assistant to President Obama.

More people plus more data equals more ideas

According to Park, the major benefit of HDI is its ability to unleash massive amounts of usable health data to researchers, doctors, lawmakers, and entrepreneurs, alike, thereby allowing innovators, on all fronts, the chance to tackle problems and solutions that affect everyone.

“We have to level the playing field for everyone in healthcare to get involved,” said Park. “By creating that kind of decentralized, open data ecosystem, we will absolutely, by orders of magnitude, deliver more benefit to the public than one organization could ever produce on its own.”

Given the amount of health data already available to users, with much more to come, NIEHS Senior Advisor Allen Dearry, Ph.D., agrees with Park’s approach.

“Todd’s work is extremely relevant to not only those of us at NIEHS, but everyone in the biomedical community,” said Dearry. “Every day, our studies are producing more and more data and HDI gives us a framework for managing that data to its maximum potential.”

Creating a buzz

In addition to releasing all new data as open data and converting older, archived data into the same downloadable format, Park was adamant that HDI’s ultimate success will likely come down to HHS’ ability to publicize the data’s availability once it’s online.

“We have to market the bageezes out of it any way we can,” Park declared, citing a number of buzz-hyping promotions, such as data paloozas and code-a-thon competitions, all of which are designed to kick-start the innovation process. “A lot of that material is already online, just waiting to be used, and yet 95 percent of the innovators in this country have no idea that it’s even there.”

Expanding the issue

With the White House’s recent announcement of the Big Data Research and Development Initiative, a more than $200 million effort to make government data readily accessible to the public, Park notes that the open data philosophy is by no means exclusive to healthcare.

“This same approach can, and should, be used in education, energy, and even public safety research,” said Park. “Why should we limit ourselves to having only the brightest minds in government working on these problems, when we can have bright minds everywhere working on them at the same time?”

(Ian Thomas is a public affairs specialist with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison members

NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison members, left to right, Cheryl Thompson, Thomas, and Ed Kang, joined scientists and others from throughout the Institute at the talk. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Chief Information Office Heather Nicholas

Several NIEHS employees, such as Chief Information Office Heather Nicholas, above, had a compelling interest in Park’s talk. For Nicholas, HDI means more usable data, but also potentially a greater workload for existing resources. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Park’s Career

Prior to joining HHS in 2009, Park worked as an entrepreneur in the private sector, co-founding such companies as athenahealth, Inc., an industry leader in health information technology, and Castlight Health, a web-based health care shopping service for consumers. Park graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard College with a bachelor’s degree in economics.

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