The Health Graph

Over the past two and a half decades, the Weather Channel built itself into a $3.5 billion company on the strength of information that’s largely available for free from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But starting today, if I had to pick the next area where somebody’s going to make an enormously successful and valuable business built on top of open government data, I’d put my money on health data. Because the Department of Health & Human Services has just launched an unprecedentedly ambitious release of public health information. Even better, one of the effort’s key leaders is Todd Park, a real startup guy who understands how to make a business that’s worth three quarters of a billion dollars, and he’s putting his (truly extraordinary) energy into helping people generate real value from the data.

In short, I think Health & Human Services data sets released today could be considered a “Health Graph”, something parallel to what the social graph has become for Facebook, acting as an enormously valuable set of connections and data sources that will let developers, entrepreneurs, and individuals make amazing new applications that will yield both big business opportunities and, even more importantly, healthier people in America.

Apples to Apples” by Regina Holliday

I’ve been following this HHS data project, called the Community Health Data Initiative, for some time in my work at Expert Labs, but there’s a real public unveiling today at a live event that’s being broadcast live on the web starting at 9am.

Frankly, at first I was a little confused or even intimidated by the idea of getting involved with health data. I know very little about how these government agencies work, and even less about how the healthcare system works. But as it turns out, all I needed to know was what was intuitively possible with really valuable data sets. Imagine what we’ll eventually be able to do when we know this kind of stuff:

  • Which neighborhoods have the highest number of liquor stores
  • Which zip codes have the lowest diabetes rates
  • Which hospitals have the worst rates of antibiotic-resistant bacteria
  • Average wait times at medical clinics
  • Which zip codes in America have good access to grocery stores

We’re already used to weather reports talking about the air quality index, can you imagine what will be possible when we have all of this information? There’s tons more on the way, and suddently the idea of someday having a Health Channel (or a Health Data app in the app store) that gives personalized and timely insights into this info, seems downright inevitable.

But it’s also striking to me because the people who have control over this data, from the White House and Health & Human Services to individual groups within the NIH and CDC and Medicare and Medicaid and the USDA have done an amazing job of learning what it is the tech world needs, and how they can be helpful to innovators. Today, these are data sets, but by the end of the year, they’ll be data services. And they’re available under really open licenses that let you do interesting things with them. They’re even blogging about this new data to try to explain it to geeks who aren’t familiar with the health world at all.

Nobody typifies this more than Todd Park; Todd’s a guy who walked away from a company he co-founded just to work as CTO of Health & Human Services, and still literally jumps up and down with excitement at the idea of people building great new apps, services, and businesses on top of this health data. These aren’t faceless bureaucrats, these are exactly the people you’d hope would be in charge of making our healthcare ecosystem run more efficiently, even separate from the debate about health care reform.

This new mountain of health data is already yielding some cool apps. The folks at Sunlight Labs just awarded a prize to County Sin Rankings, which uses the new data sets to show you how your county ranks for each of the seven deadly sins. (Here’s New York!) Meanwhile, Salubrious Nation makes a game out of trying to guess the health of various counties around the country.

There’s lots, lots more, but though I’m more focused on getting our voices heard by policy makers than on just getting data out of government agencies, I have to say that this is one of the few projects I’ve heard about where I immediately saw a huge opportunity from new data sets being released.