Lessons learned from NIH online app

The National Institutes of Health's Pillbox program has shown that a project manager may have to move outside the comfort zone.

“Just because an idea originates in a silo does not mean it is not a good idea,” Hale said.

Being an innovator in government can be risky for your career, according to David Hale, project manager for the National Library of Medicine’s Pillbox online application that allows users to identify thousands of pills with visual images.

“Sometimes, I got a slap on the wrist,” Hale said at the Next Generation in Government Summit on July 28 in a presentation called “Gov 2.0 Ninja: Proven Tips on Implementing Gov 2.0 at your Agency.”

But the occasional reprimands did not discourage him from continuing on the project. “Fortunately, it’s pretty hard to get fired as a government employee,"  Hale said. "Why not just push the edge?”

The idea for Pillbox started with discussions between officials at the national library, the Veterans Affairs Department and the District of Columbia Poison Control Center. The participants agreed there was a need for an application to visually identify pills by substance and dose, a first for VA facilities.


Related story:

NIH Pillbox prototype is easy to digest


While the project was still in the conceptual stage, Hale said he began expanding the idea and opening it to the public. Hales said he started Pillbox in a somewhat “stealthy” fashion by holding discussions on his own time with people outside government that included medical caregivers, patients and other potential customers, as well as with developers, programmers and innovation experts.

Hale also began tweeting about the project from his personal Twitter account (@lostonroute66) and attending Health 2.0 and other conferences. Hale also said he shared ideas with Todd Park, chief technology officer of the Health and Human Services Department, who was enthusiastic and encouraged him to continue.

It was not until a newspaper ran a story about the budding application that his supervisor became aware of the depth of his involvement, Hale said.

“I got a slap on the wrist,” Hale said. However, because the project had started to gain momentum and Park was supporting it, “I also got an ‘Atta boy!' After that, I got a little more leeway.”

When trying to work on an innovative project, it is hard to avoid getting discouraged when it might take months for certain actions to happen or requirements to be met, Hale said. Development work on Pillbox slowed down dramatically for nine months while compliance and regulatory requirements were met, he added.

The risk is that projects may lose valuable momentum if the focus is primarily on compliance, Hale said. Ideally, innovators have to strive to find a balance between pushing hard using unusual channels if necessary and being patient and staying within designated channels, he suggested.

“It’s a balance, but I have not yet found the balance,” he said.

Pillbox debuted in beta form in October 2009 and is still considered a research and development project. It also is available as an iPhone app. The national library, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, has spent about $30,000 developing Pillbox, not including staff time, while also taking advantage of a database of pill images developed in a $300,000 research program run by the Food and Drug Administration, Hale said. The two agencies collaborated under an interagency agreement.

Hale has continued to develop contacts with programmers and developers who contributed code and applications, sometimes for free in a spirit of friendly competition. The volunteers share their code at GitHub.com, which is an online public repository of code.

Hale has continued to hold discussions, tweet and attend conferences, and he said said interest in Pillbox has “gotten out of control” and volunteers have spontaneously added to the capabilities. For example, a college student working independently wrote the code for a voice-only version of Pillbox in just two weekends, at no charge.

Hale shared several other tips for “Gov 2.0 ninjas” wanting to advance innovation at their agencies:

  • Spend time with your customers, ideally as a conversation rather than paying for a focus group. “If you pay someone, you can get bad information,” he said.
  • Members of the public and end users will do the best job of explaining how an application will be used. “We, the government, are the experts in content. [Members of the public] are the experts in context,” Hale said.
  • Get to know your agency’s mission statement, strategic plan and other strategic documents to help define and support your project goals. “Your agency’s mission provides great cover,” Hale said.
  • Bring your managers along and share what you have learned. Align your project objectives with your managers’ objectives for achieving success in their positions.
  • In a project’s first stages, you want to do things “small, fast and cheap,” Hale said. The prototype format and layout for Pillbox was drawn on a plain sheet of paper. The prototype was on Microsoft PowerPoint.

NEXT STORY: Good news, for a change

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.