CTO Todd Park Continues to Champion 'Open Data' & Innovation

Todd Park, CTO for the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), spoke at the recent South by SouthWest (SXSW) Interactive 2012 conference held in Austin, Texas. His presentation focused on innovation, startups, and examples of key HHS projects he has championed, e.g. the Healthcare.Gov web site and the Community 'Open' Health Data Initiative.

The HHS 'Open' Health Data Initiative is about tapping into the power of 'free' information. It is a major public-private effort that aims to help Americans better understand and improve their own health and health care performance in their communities. In addition to using 'open data' to improve health, another goal is to spark the creation of new, innovative companies, jobs, business processes, and software apps.

In Todd Park's own words, "It’s a phenomenal time to be an innovator at the intersection of data and health care improvement. I’m incredibly excited by the rising tide of innovations we’re seeing – new products, services and features being invented by entrepreneurs across the country, fueled by open health data."   See Health 2.0 News.

It should be noted that the White House recently announced that Todd Park will be leaving HHS and will be stepping into the role left open by Aneesh Chopra, as the Chief Technical Officer (CTO) for the U.S. government. Read more at O'Reilly Radar.


Open Data can be defined as 'selected data' that should be made freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other excessive control mechanisms.

The concept of open data is not new. Advocates argue that access to scientific data, especially data gathered or created by a government institution and funded by public money, should be 'open' or free of any restrictions. These advocates also argue that restrictions on access to certain types of data are against the communal good and that these data should be made available without restriction or fee.

Even as the Open Data and Open Access movement gains momentum, there are still many organizations fighting to reverse the process, e.g. for-profit publishing houses and certain not-for-profit education and research organizations that depend on fees charged to access the data to fund their operations. 

Numerous scientists have pointed out the irony that right at the historical moment when we have the technologies to permit worldwide availability and distributed process of scientific data, broadening collaboration and accelerating the pace and depth of discovery…..we are busy locking up that data and preventing the use of correspondingly advanced technologies on knowledge.   -  John Wilbanks, Executive Director, Science Commons

While the open-science-data movement long predates the Internet, the availability of fast, ubiquitous networking has significantly changed the context of 'open' science data, since publishing or obtaining data has become much less expensive and time-consuming. Some key events in the history of open access include:

  • Open access to scientific data was institutionally established with the formation of the World Data Center (WDC) system, in preparation for the International Geophysical Year back in 1957-1958.
  • In 2004, the Science Ministers of all nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) signed a declaration which essentially states that all publicly-funded archive data should be made publicly available.
  • In 2007, the OECD published the OECD Principles and Guidelines for Access to Research Data from Public Funding.
  • By 2009, open data started to become visible in the mainstream with a growing number of governments  announcing new initiatives towards opening up their public information, e.g. United States, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, etc.
In May 2009, the U.S. government launched the Data.Gov web site. According to the website, "The purpose of Data.Gov is to increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government." The site is intended to become a repository for all public data and information collected by the U.S. government.

Open Data Resources – Healthcare Examples

The following are links to selected 'Open Data' resources on population health and healthcare in the U.S. and around the world:

  • CDC Data & Statistics – The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) have opened access to a wide range of data for public health purposes.
  • Google Public Data Explorer - Making large public data sets on healthcare, economics, and other subjects readily accessible and easy to explore & visualize.
  • HCUP Databases - Databases on healthcare cost & utilization in the U.S. available from the Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality (AHRQ).
  • Health.Data.Gov – The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) has provided open access to a wide range of health information & data sets that are generated and/or held by the U.S. Government.
A core principle of the Open Government Plan developed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) is that the government can help trigger enormous public good by implementing the idea of “government as platform,” supplying ever greater amounts of high quality health data collected by the government to the public and actively marketing the availability of this data. The expectation is that individuals and organizations in the private sector may then find innovative ways to turn this data into useful applications, products, and services.   - See HHS Community Health Data Initiative.
  • NationMaster - Compilation of health information & statistics from such sources as the UN, WHO, UNESCO, UNICEF, World Bank, etc.
  • WHO Global Health Observatory – The World Health Organization (WHO) Global Health Observatory provides data and analyses on global health priorities.
  • World Bank Health Data - Data collected by the World Bank on national health systems, disease prevention, reproductive health, nutrition, population, and more.
  • WONDER - Online system and databases available from CDC for the analysis of public health data.

There are many other 'open' health data sets and web sites that are worth exploring, e.g., CCW Data Sets, Global Health Data Exchange, Global HealthMap, NIH Health Services Research & Public Health DatabasesKaiser Foundation 'Global Health Facts', Health Indicators Warehouse.


What we are seeing is the emergence of a whole new industry 'Open Data' built around the innovative re-use of public sector data. This means finding ways to add value by combining information from different sources, creating new tools or software applications, analyzing the data and generating useful new reports or products for commercial and non-commercial purposes. Access to 'Open Data' generated by the public sector has great economic potential to provide citizens and organizations with information they need or want, while creating many new jobs and companies along the way.

Other Key 'Open Data' Sites

Also, check out the collection of selected videos in the 'Open Data' Playlist on the YouTube Open Health IT channel.