Hackers Mine Secrets of California’s Health Data Motherlode

People with a passion for improving their communities’ health won more than $30,000 in prizes for devising new ways to mine California’s mother lode of mostly unused health data.

The fourth annual National Day of Civic Hacking (NDoCH) was held over the June 6 weekend, and the California Health Care Foundation (CHCF) and the California Health and Human Services Agency (CHHS) joined in the fun by sponsoring health-focused hackathons organized by our team of California Health Data Ambassadors in Sacramento, Los Angeles, and Fresno.

The three events brought together hundreds of technologists, government officials, developers, community organizers, and passionate citizens to use state health data to build solutions addressing many of California’s biggest issues, such as the statewide drought, obesity, and asthma.


The cash winners in the Sacramento hackathon included:

  • CommunityBeat: A dashboard to help users take the pulse of their community through health and demographic data indicators
  • PoliSee: A dashboard to track statewide indicators from California’s Let’s Get Healthy California initiative
  • WIC App from Apptology: A smartphone app enabling participants in the Women, Infants, and Children supplemental nutrition program to locate nearby WIC vendors and offices

The Audience Choice Award went to Rocket Dept’s GeoPulse, a physical map of California that uses LED lights whose changing colors reflect various statewide datasets while showing where the data are coming from. The GeoPulse map is also available online. As we’ve noted previously, presenting data this way can empower all Californians.
Richard PanAlso out of Sacramento was HealthBits, designed by Bayes Impact, a nonprofit led by data scientists, engineers, and academics. HealthBits displays on an interactive map the best hospitals for treating specific medical conditions.

Participants also heard from Senator Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), chair of the California Senate Committee on Health, whose Senate Bill 573 calling for the creation of a chief data officer for California has advanced to the State Assembly.

At the hackathon, CHCF’s Associate Director for External Engagement, Andy Krackov, encouraged developers and policymakers to continue working with state staff on important community health projects after NDoCH.


Over in Fresno, an expert health panel discussed local issues and possible solutions (many of which came from a CHCF health data roundtable in April). The panel featured Sara Bosse from Fresno County’s Department of Public Health, Mario Soberol from Fresno civic startup Bitwise Industries, and the Fresno Bee‘s Barbara Andersen, whose four-part investigative series used state data to highlight health risks from asthma to diabetes in the San Joaquin Valley.

Teams in Fresno built a variety of products, including tools to help solve issues associated with hunger and to quickly alert residents about air quality. The winner was Team Compare Care, whose app compares information about hospital mortality and infection rates.

Los Angeles

Eric Garcetti at Hack for LAThe biggest NDoCH event, the CHCF-sponsored HackforLA, promoted diversity in gender, age, and race and engaged many first-time participants. Mayor Eric Garcetti joined in with his new open-data technology challenge in partnership with Civic Innovation Lab.

One of the Los Angeles winners was Breathe LA, developed by Katie Fleeman, Catherine Rhee, and Brian Cottrell to help Californians engage with preventive health education. Using asthma information from the California Department of Public Health, Breathe LA sends users real-time updates on air quality, pollen counts, and other environmental conditions that can trigger an allergic reaction. Considering the county’s poor air quality history, it’s no surprise that asthma sends 50,000 people to emergency rooms each year.

So What’s Next?

These hackathons in Sacramento, Fresno, and Los Angeles hint at the possibilities from opening up valuable health information to all Californians. CHCF’s Free the Data initiative will continue to build bridges to cities and counties with its statewide local community pilot project. Our health data ambassadors will leverage state data in local meetings, give feedback to the state, and create tools to help communities be healthier.

The products of these hackathons are truly exciting. Congratulations to the winners, and thanks to all the participants! Health data are powerful in the right hands, and people are still only scratching the surface of what’s possible.

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