Innovation, are we there yet?!

Lilian Coral, Health Data Ambassador — Los Angeles

Does Open Data lead to innovations in the public sector? I venture to guess that for many of us who work with, or circle the open data space, secretly ask this question all the time. And the answer likely varies day-to-day.

In California, as a Health Data Ambassador for the California HealthCare Foundation’s community outreach efforts around the CHHS Open Data portal, I’m exploring various aspects of this question. Even in these early days of my role in this project, we just launched the pilot program two weeks ago, the first question that emerged for me was, what is innovation?

So much is being written about innovation, especially in the public sector, which for me includes nonprofit organizations, and perspectives range from: “innovation is great and it’s transforming the way cities run” to “the over-emphasis on innovation is distracting us from core mission and existing programs/services.” And so….

The other question that came to mind is, are we truly innovative? A lot of things can pass as innovative, but how do we measure innovation? So I went on a mini online quest, which led me to Stanford Social Innovation Review. Their definition of social innovation emphasized “ a novel solution” that is “more effective, efficient, sustainable or just” and that generates value “to society as a whole.” So, it’s new, an improvement, and sustainable or just. Now, this is easy enough to remember and hold constant while I work over the next four months and discover what solutions, tools we can develop in Los Angeles around health data from state, county and city, as part of the pilot program.

However, I imagine that if innovation as defined were easy enough to remember, then it would be easier to facilitate innovative solutions. And is that the case? Or do we find ourselves often times working with what exists and trying to make that better?

I ask these questions because I’m thirsty for change. I want to see progress, like I’m sure you do, around the most persistent societal ills, and my sense is that if anything can drive us to see new ways to improve health, it is more and better data. So, I will strive to push the boundaries as much as possible, but I was sobered by a talk I heard at this year’s Open DataFest from Will Lightbourne, Director of the California Department of Social Services.

Lightbourne acknowledged the value and importance of all these Open Data and Innovation efforts but also shared a couple of ways in which he creates a sense of accountability for using “the next best resource” on any initiative. He asked:

  • Does it have an impact? For him, on changing the circumstances of children in deep poverty in California.
  • Does it incorporate the people you’re trying to impact?
  • Does it distribute or consolidate power?

The challenge raised for all of us working for social good is: it is not enough to be innovative, to develop something new; it’s got to have an impact and we should hold ourselves accountable for measuring the impact and assuring it’s the best use of the “next best resource.”

I’m excited and challenged to explore these dynamics over the next couple of months in Los Angeles and see first hand how Open Data leads to innovation in the public sector!

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