June 2, 2010

Making Health Data Sing (Even If It’s A Familiar Song)

Todd Park is determined to make health data hot. He is leading the U.S. Department of Health & Human Service’s effort to make more of their data sets publicly available, from nursing home quality ratings to the food environmental atlas (view the full list of available downloads). As he says, HHS doesn’t want to choreograph the outcome of all this data liberation – they just want to make health data as useful and available as weather data.

I admit to being a little skeptical. Scratch the surface of the available data sets and you’ll find the same health disparities discussed everywhere in public health: how much money you have is a big determinant for where you live and where you live is a big determinant of your health.

However, maybe there’s something to that weather analogy. As someone said,Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” The innovators being showcased today at the Community Health Data Initiative event are examples of people who want to talk about health disparities AND do something about it.

Pew Internet research finds that at least some Americans have an appetite for government data. Do they have an appetite for doing something about it?

At a sneak preview of today’s event, I saw five of the apps based on data made available by HHS. Tune in to hhs.gov/open at 9am Eastern to see these and other examples:

1) The Network of Care for Healthy Communities. A community dashboard with health indicators for individuals, families, and policymakers to use for “evidence-based decision-making.” Nothing too sexy here, but I was impressed by their efforts to tie county health data to state, regional, and national resources AND pending state and national legislation. The links are checked and updated every three days (oof, that is a lot of work).

Weather report: if you see a storm coming toward your community, these people can tell you where to buy an umbrella — or how to build a tornado shelter.

2) Microsoft Bing. Alain Rappaport and his team noticed that many people are searching for specific hospitals (38% of internet users according to Pew Internet research) yet the hospital comparison data was stuck in what they consider the “deep web.” So Bing now surfaces it instantly. This is just one example of how Bing is attempting to mash up health data, search, and data visualization.

Weather report: when people receive a diagnosis or are facing a health decision, search is often the first port in the storm. Bing wants to throw people a line.

3) GE Healthymagination. Lovely infographics of horrible realities, but apparently people like the cost of getting sick calculator.

Weather report: if data visualization alone can drive behavior change, GE has the art budget to be the Weather Channel of health data.

4) CommunityClash. Now we’re talking: an online card game to engage people in community health indicators. I can’t wait to pit cities against each other in imaginary health smackdowns (yep, I’m a health geek, but so are you if you are reading this). And you can share the results on Twitter and Facebook.

Weather report:  the winner of the Al Roker award for making serious data fun.

5) Google Health. Mashing up hospital data to make it manipulable, shareable, and mappable to answer the question: Where is the best place to have chest pain in the U.S.? You can embed your new custom, interactive map in a blog. My lightbulb moment was when I found out that you can add any other CSV file — such as an online community’s quirky, detailed hospital reviews (where’s the best take-out nearby? how’s the parking? where’s the nearest florist?)

Weather report: this is for the Weather Channel fanatics — people who have the time to track hurricanes and tell the rest of us what we need to know, when we need to know it.

(Join the discussion on e-patients.net)