Ain't No Party Like a Health Data Party

Joel Riphagen

April 23, 2015
Joel Riphagen
Joel Riphagen

I'm excited about the work we'll be doing in the coming months and was thrilled to kick off the project by attending the Health and Human Services Open DataFest, which was held on March 16 and 17 in Sacramento.

This event, sponsored by the California Health Care Foundation (CHCF), brought together leaders from throughout California and points beyond to talk about the remarkable strides the state has made in recent years to open access to vital health data, with the California Health and Human Services Agency's (CHHS) Open Data Portal rightly held up as Exhibit A. The meeting showed us examples from across the nation and the world of the power of open data.

Why, you may ask, is it a "fest"? A festival conjures up images of outdoor concerts and community celebrations. Was this an ordinary conference with delusions of grandeur? Let me tell you why I think the name was appropriate.

Certainly there were presentations, keynotes, and panels like any other conference. Yet there was something subtly different about the mood at this gathering. In the opening keynote, CHHS Undersecretary Michael Wilkening described how, following the inaugural Open DataFest in 2014, he adopted the cause of open data and began preaching its benefits within his agency.

Later that day, Vince Seaman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation presented a moving story of how open data is playing a central role in the Gates Foundation's efforts to eradicate polio in Nigeria. Each speaker and panelist reinforced the feeling that we were all a part of a sea change in how decisionmakers can use data to address public problems.

This attitude was evident in everyone I spoke to in the interactive sessions and the breaks. I left the conference with a sense that the open health data movement has real momentum here in California, and I'm excited to be carrying that momentum forward. To do that, and help open data achieve its full potential, we'll have to keep finding new and innovative uses for it.

That's what I get to do as a health data ambassador, part of a statewide project funded by CHCF's Free the Data Initiative. On May 4, we'll hold a roundtable in Sacramento with representatives of the local health care community to begin discussing their needs and how the state's data can be brought to bear to address those needs. Colleagues in Fresno and Los Angeles are doing the same. With any luck, we'll find a killer app that leverages the power of data to solve some real problems.

The Takeaway

Who knows? Maybe by next year, the enthusiasm behind open data will be so great that "Open DataFest" won't be adequate to convey it. They may have to throw an "Open DataPalooza."