HHS employees, industry partners jump-start innovations

Health and Human Service department's CTO shares vision for revolutionizing health information exchange

Todd Park is the go-to guy for open government at the Health and Human Services Department. As chief technology officer, he is the executive lead for HHS’ open-government plan, which spans dozens of initiatives, and he oversees HHS’ Community Health Data Initiative, introduced in June to offer free online access to HHS data. Park is also a sponsor of the HHS Innovates contest for employees and recently flexed his social media muscles by publicizing that competition in a YouTube video with Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist.

Park’s portfolio at HHS also includes data mapping, health care reform, the coming HHS Web portal for insurance comparisons and the Nationwide Health Information Network.

Before joining HHS in August 2009, Park was co-founder of Athenahealth, a Web-based supplier of health information technology to physicians. He also worked as a health care management consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton and was a senior fellow in health IT and health reform policy at the Center for American Progress. In addition, he volunteered as a senior health care adviser at Ashoka, where he helped start a social entrepreneurial venture to bring telehealth, medicine, diagnostic tools and clean water to rural India.

He met recently with staff writer Alice Lipowicz to discuss his role as an innovator at HHS and his goals for sharing health data with the public.

FCW: How is your job at HHS defined?

Todd Park: It is an unconventional definition of a CTO. It is actually unlike any CTO in the private sector. Basically, my role has no live responsibility. It is 100 percent about being a change agent. Eighty percent of my time is for originating and leading projects. I’m involved in open government, health reform and health information exchange.

FCW: You introduced the Community Health Data Initiative in June with industry members, offering HHS health and hospital data for free on the Web as an open-government initiative. Microsoft, Google and other companies created maps and other new applications for the data. What is your goal for that program?

Park: CHDI is a public/private collaboration. There is no organization, no formal agreement, no official anything, just groups getting together.

We are going to continue to supply data to people who want to build applications. We are not trying to choreograph or control it. We are just brainstorming.

FCW: You have said that you would like to change the name of the initiative, and now a blogger has created a competition to identify a better name. What do you think about that?

Park: The names being suggested are all really good. I’m of a mind to change it. The only downside is that people are beginning to know what it is and to recognize the name. We will decide at the Health 2.0 Conference in October.

FCW: Are there any plans to track how people use HHS data?

Park: We would love to keep track. We are very interested in how the ecosystem develops and how it gets applied. We don’t want to control the ecosystem. We want a thousand flowers to bloom.

FCW: So far, the companies involved have created the new applications for free. How will you keep that momentum going?

Park: Things have come together rapidly and with a lot of enthusiasm. Over its life, CHDI will generate a public good.

This is not being done from the top down. It is bigger than us. It is about defining a spirit of commitment to do something cool to benefit the community. The companies are motivated to build something helpful to the public, and if it generates growth, that’s great.

The notion of really leveraging data and technology to improve health and society is what people get excited about. It’s an idea whose time has come.

We’re being approached by multiple companies to contribute data to CHDI. That is doable and helpful.

To protect privacy, the aggregate government data has been deidentified, and it cannot be reidentified. The same practice will apply to the private data.

FCW: A lot of the applications created so far involve mapping. Does HHS have plans for expanding its mapping of health data or coordinating the mapping done by the Health Resources and Services Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Medicare/Medicaid?

Park: HRSA will deploy a mapping application for community health data in December. We plan to put it on the Web as the HRSA Indicators Warehouse. People will be able to download it and use the data.

For mapping, we have a lot of people and a lot of responsibility for a lot of different things. I think that’s fine, actually.

Do we currently have a project to do an uber-map for all of HHS’ data? No, we don’t. Could we potentially do it in the future? Possibly.

The HRSA Indicators Warehouse data will be accessible and workable at a new level. It will look at regional disparities. It will have a new set of community-level aggregate figures on Medicare disease prevalence, quality of care, utilization of services and cost. This goes significantly beyond what we now have. It will show national, state and probably community data. It’s all aggregate data, not by provider.

We’re doing the indicators data warehouse in-house. Some of it is being contracted out, and we are teaming with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on it.

FCW: Studies on regional disparities in Medicare costs and services by the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care and others have been controversial, especially when they purport to show disparities in utilization of care in some regions compared to others. Will the HRSA Indicators Warehouse address some of that controversy?

Park: This [data on regional disparities] is not being released as a judgment. We are releasing it as data. The aggregate could be a perception or an indicator of quality.

We will present the data in a way that is fair and accurate. It is a really interesting set of data points.


About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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