Ain’t No Party Like a Health Data Party

Joel Riphagen, Health Data Ambassador — Sacramento

Greetings from Sacramento! My name is Joel Riphagen, one of two Health Data Ambassadors coordinating efforts in the State Capitol to find innovative uses for health data that are relevant to the local health community.

I’m excited about the work we’ll have a chance to do in the coming months, and I couldn’t have thought of a better way to kick off the project than attending the Health and Human Services Open DataFest in mid-March. This event brought together leaders from throughout California and points beyond to talk about the remarkable strides California has made in recent years to open access to vital health data (with the California Health and Human Services Agency’s (CHHS) Open Data Portal rightly held up as Exhibit A), as well as provide examples of the power of open data from elsewhere in the nation and the world.

“But wait,” you may be asking, “why is it a ‘-Fest’?” ‘Fest’ is short for ‘festival’, and conjures up images of outdoor concerts and community celebrations. Surely this was just a conference with delusions of grandeur? Let me tell you why I think the name was appropriate.

Certainly there were presentations, keynotes, and panels like any other conference, but there was something subtly different about the mood. In the opening keynote, Michael Wilkening, Undersecretary at CHHS, described how, following the inaugural Open DataFest in 2014, he converted to the cause of open data and began preaching it within his agency as a way to increase their collective effectiveness. Later that day, Vince Seaman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation presented a moving story of how open data is playing a central role in the Foundation’s efforts to eradicate polio in Nigeria. Speaker after speaker, panelist after panelist, the feeling that we were all a part of a sea change in how the public’s problems are addressed was palpable.

This attitude was evident in everyone I had the pleasure of speaking to in the interactive sessions and the breaks. I left the conference feeling a great sense of momentum behind open data and excited about carrying that momentum forward. To do that, and help open data achieve its full potential, we’ll have to keep finding new and innovative uses for it.

Thankfully, that’s just what I get to do as a Health Data Ambassador part of a statewide project funded by the California HealthCare Foundation’s Free the Data Initiative. At the beginning of May, we’ll be holding a roundtable in Sacramento with representatives from the local health community, to begin discussing their needs and how the state’s data can be brought to bear to address those needs. Our colleagues in Fresno and Los Angeles will be doing the same. With any luck, we’ll find a killer app that leverages the power of the data to solve some real problems.

Who knows? Maybe by next year, the enthusiasm behind open data will be so great that “Open DataFest” won’t be adequate to convey it. Looking forward to “Open DataPalooza 2016”!