May 5, 2010

The Power of Data and the Power of One

I am struck, once again, by the power of data and the power of one.

Carlos Rizo, Chief Imagineer of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell, posted this very intriguing tweet on May 2:

The power of open data: To find problems in complicated environments, and possibly even to prevent them from emerging.

Clicking through, I saw it was a quote from this eye-popping post: Case Study: How Open data saved Canada $3.2 Billion. The writer concludes (emphasis added):

When data is made readily available in machine readable formats, more eyes can look at it. This means that someone on the ground, in the community (like, say, Toronto) who knows the sector, is more likely to spot something a public servant in another city might not see because they don’t have the right context or bandwidth.

Where have we heard that before? How about every e-patient story, um, ever? Or, as Regina Holliday recently testified, “I may not be an expert at my husband’s disease, but I am an expert when it comes to my husband.” That’s the power of one person, to care so much about someone that they will read his entire medical record.

If someone is motivated enough to dig, interested enough to analyze, and knowledgeable enough about their chosen topic to see data with fresh eyes, they can start a revolution on a small scale (like preventing medical error for a loved one) or on a large scale (like exposing widespread corruption).

The Pew Internet Project recently released an in-depth look at Government Online in which we found that 40% of U.S. internet users (age 18+) have gone online for raw data about government spending and activities. (Note that we released the data set, too.)

Some say this is just the beginning, which is why we conducted the survey, hoping to pick the topic while it’s ripening. Others say there’s a limit to the number of people who will ever want to crunch data. See, for example, Adam Bosworth’s recent speech, in which he says most Americans don’t want data per se, but want to know how it fits in to their lives.

Now comes the Design for America contest, being run in conjunction with the Gov 2.0 Expo and in celebration of the U.S. Open Government Initiative. (Full disclosure: I am on the Expo’s program committee and hope that it will be, like last year, a one-stop shop for cross-disciplinary inspiration.)

On the front burner for health geeks, of course, is the Community Health Data Initiative from HHS.

Now, HHS did not receive a perfect score from a citizen group evaluating its open government plan, but it is attracting talent, namely  Ted Eytan and Regina Holliday. Check out their plan for unlocking hospital data together and think about how you can throw some logs on the data fire.

Also, think about attending – or at least following updates from – some of the public service/data geek conferences coming up this spring:  Gov 2.0 Expo (May 25-27); Personal Democracy Forum (June 3-4); Health 2.0 Goes To Washington (June 7). These are just the three that I know about: What other meetings fit this description? Where else is the data revolution taking place?

Join a discussion about this commentary on e-patients.net.