The Health Graph: Mortal Threats & Signs of Life

Two years ago, I said that the executive branch of the U.S. federal government was the most interesting tech startup of 2009. That optimism started to bear fruit just a few months later, with one of my favorite examples being what I called “The Health Graph“, the massive amount of new public health data being made available by the Department of Health & Human Services’ open data project, the Community Health Data Initiative.

We know public data can drive huge businesses; in last month’s Wired, Clive Thompson caught me being a little bit flippant about it:

The best-known example, of course, is the multibillion-dollar weather-reporting industry. For-profit weather services take free, public data produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and then make it worth oodles by adding analysis, tailoring it to local markets, and, as public-data expert Anil Dash playfully notes, “having attractive people stand in front of maps explaining tomorrow’s weather to you.” (The Weather Channel sold for $3.5 billion two years ago, people.)

And that potential is even greater for health data. As I said last year in my post on the Health Graph:

[S]tarting 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.

This ambitious, valuable project graduated into Health.Data.Gov, a full-fledged community for those who want to exploit it to help their fellow citizens while building businesses and opportunities for themselves.

A Mortal Threat

Less than two weeks ago, this health data set, along with many dozens of other similar efforts across the open government data ecosystem had their very existence threatened by devastating budget cuts that were only slightly tempered at the last minute. As a result, many open government data projects will survive, but barely on life support.

It’s an egregious, and dangerously short-sighted way of trying to reduce the budget. Congress has been trying to cut investments that fuel innovation simply because they are unfamiliar in form and may take away power from the usual political insiders by making new types of data radically more available to innovators, startups, and people who actually work with this data on a day-to-day basis.

Why does it matter? Because the output of efforts like the Community Health Data Initiative are just starting to bear fruit in mainstream culture.

Data At Work

In the first episode of the new season of Jamie Oliver’s (excellent!) show “Food Revolution”, open health data makes an appearance as part of a Bing-sponsored community “war room” being used to show availability of healthy food within the LA community that Oliver is trying to help. (Relevant segment starts at 4:10 in this clip.)

Bing trumpeted the launch of this health maps feature a year ago when it was new, but making it the cornerstone of a sponsored placement in an influential TV show is a great way of demonstrating that the company sees this information as valuable enough to base its brand message on. When you’re a search engine that’s surged to 30% market share in a head-to-head battle against Google, that’s damned impressive.

At the other end of the spectrum, this open health data is being used by the Bayonne Medical Center in New Jersey to promote the short wait times at its emergency room, which was exactly the sort of use that people were brainstorming as an ideal outcome during the earliest meetings about the Community Health Data Initiative. From today’s Wall Street Journal:

[O]ne northern New Jersey hospital is trying to lure patients from competing hospitals by bragging about its low average wait times in the emergency room. Bayonne Medical Center on Tuesday unveiled two billboards in Jersey City that are updated with the emergency-room wait times several times a day.

Hospitals around the country have begun providing ER wait times on their websites, on Twitter and via text message, as well as on billboards.

In case you missed it, this story is a clear example of:

  • Government data
  • Being used to drive private industry competition
  • To improve healthcare effectiveness for ordinary citizens

Where It Leads

I’m no political expert, but I’m pretty sure any member of any party would have to concede that these examples of markets becoming more efficient while better-serving citizens is exactly what we’d like to see from our government and from healthcare providers. Just a few months after these efforts have begun in earnest, we’re seeing results that have made their way across the country, and seeped into the culture at large. That’s without even having geeks take a look at sites like the Health Indicators Warehouse with an eye towards what awesome businesses, apps and mashups will be built next.

So, there’s a lot of good news. We narrowly dodged a bullet this time, because there are companies succeeding with this data, even though they aren’t necessarily telling the story of how valuable it is. But we might not be so lucky next time, and those elected officials who see it as a negative to encourage transparency or to challenging incumbent businesses that hoard data instead of building on it as a public good might not show mercy at the last minute next year.

The solution, as I see it, is simple: As a community of developers and technologists, we have to build powerful, indispensable apps and services on top of this data. Killer apps that save lives. If we can make ourselves invaluable, they won’t have the chance to try to cut off our oxygen.