NY Innovates – Jim Hendler on The Big Problem in Open Data

During the recent NY Innovates conference in Albany, New York State’s Open Data Advisor, Dr. Jim Hendler, shared a story underscoring what he feels is the major problem with open data initiatives: getting data to users want it (and would understand it).

Some time ago, as Dr. Hendler tells the story, he created a data mashup of two sources: the number of books in each state’s libraries, and the number of people residing in each state. This mashup divided the former by the latter, calculating the number of library books for each person in that state. After publishing the mashup and its figures, Hendler received a brusque email from someone who found his mashup lacking. According to Hendler, the emailer told him that he was (obviously!) using the wrong data set, which only counted books available in libraries which were owned by the state, and not books available in all libraries in that state.

It was interesting to hear an expert on open data talk about his own misstep with open data, but the lesson to take away here is that open data movements need to be mindful of making their data easier for real people to use. Hendler analogized the situation to cotton farmers and people who want to buy shirts. There’s an entire process which happens between “cotton is harvested” and “shirt is purchased,” and open data’s analogous process, according to Hendler, still remains to be commoditized and perfected.

Praise for NY Innovates – NYS Rocking Open Health Data

Photo via @dave_cohn

Photo via @dave_cohn

Hats off to New York’s health and technology agencies, who joined the governor’s OpenNY initiative for this week’s successful NY Innovates app-building code-a-thon and forum on open health data. The well-attended event at RPI, in Troy, New York, brought together some of the top open data and technology innovators in government along with health professionals and apps developers to “explore the creative use of technology and data to solve the challenges of tomorrow.” Luminaries included open data gurus like Jim Hendler of RPI, pioneering health data leader Nirav Shah, M.D. (Commissioner of NYS DOH), and Andrew Nicklin, the Director of Open NY.

$10,000 in prize money was put up by the event’s main sponsors, the NYS Health Foundation and a number of private sponsors; overall, nearly a dozen separate teams of apps developers showed up to compete.

The big topics at the discussion forums included patient privacy, making open data easier to find and use, and better measuring the specific benefits New Yorkers can expect to see from open health data.

Tania Allard, Health Data NY’s Director,  encouraged other agencies to not overthink their open data efforts, saying that the most important part of any open data initiative is getting data out. She acknowledged that there may be mistakes in the data, but the public can help find and correct those mistakes much faster than an agency alone. (We think this is essentially the definition of success for a government open data initiatives. So congrats to NYS DOH and Open NY for this data release.)

Allard’s remarks probably alluded to the previous week’s NY Times article about a tenfold variation in the costs of hip replacements at New York hospitals. The first Times article was followed the next day by a correction, as the Times called hospitals to confirm, and then the hospitals acknowledged misrepresenting the costs of their procedures to the Department of Health.

This is a very exciting time for open data in New York, especially health open data, where Nirav Shah and his team, seem to really understand the potential of open data. In this season of the Moreland Commission, Albany can be in a dreadful state of mind, but this unusual and creative event was hugely encouraging to anyone who wants more open and innovative government. We hope word gets back to Governor Cuomo about how this open data event and the kind of work NYSDOH in particular is doing, are helping to foster a new culture in state government that values trying new things and taking intelligent risks – in a word, a culture of innovation.

(One small bit of advice for NY Innovates 2014: please webcast it next year!)

NY Innovates – Nirav Shah Highlights What’s Next for Open Health Data in New York State

IMG_2516At this week’s health data conference, NY Innovates, the keynote panel was headlined by some of New York State’s open data experts. Dr. Theresa Pardo, Dr. Nirav Shah, and Dr. Jim Hendler all shared their expertise during the panel, which was moderated by the Director of Open NY, Andrew Nicklin.

During a discussion on the immediate future of open health data, Dr. Shah talked about the practical implications of open data. For example, every year, thousands of New York’s children go off to summer camps, and each kid will need a copy of his or her immunization record before they can attend. For most parents, this means a visit to the doctor’s office and a paper copy of these records. (And again and again when your child goes to middle school or high school or college)

Dr. Shah noted that his Department of Health has this immunization data on file. He announced that DOH is creating a blue button solution to save parents the annual trip to their doctor’s office. The DOH hopes to have this program in place by Spring, in time for summer camp season.

Later, during a discussion of the coming of the internet of things, Dr. Shah was asked about its potential to revolutionize health data in America. He was quick to note that the future would be full of data, but reiterated his (and his department’s) focus on the “low-hanging fruit” – not just big data, but the small data that he said we still use relatively poorly. The national health care industry is a $2.7 trillion “behemoth,” and nothing that size is easy to upend. Neither the internet of things nor small data will do that overnight.

Cuomo Appoints Rachel Haot to New Digital Tech Post

Rachel Haot

Cheers to Governor Cuomo for creating the important new post of Deputy Secretary for Technology,  and appointing the dynamic Rachel Haot. Rachel was an energetic and innovative force as NYC Chief Digital Officer, and will have a critical portfolio leading the:

“State’s digital experience across web, mobile and social media with a focus on streamlining services and supporting public engagement online. She will also work with the technology community to implement strategic partnerships that serve the needs of New Yorkers and help to realize the State’s innovative potential.”

Haot has potentially enormous responsibilities since a huge array of state services are delivered through agency websites.  New York State badly needs help organizing its digital resources.  Astonishingly, many state agencies do not use Content Management Systems — like WordPress which this site is built on — for their websites,  and must have a developer hand code every new announcement or event they post online. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. Few state agencies use site analytics to track page views and other activity, and are essentially flying blind when it comes to what’s working and not working on their sites.  Additionally, most agencies have not done basic assessments of their “business processes” to see how their can best help agencies serve the public and meet their basic performance goals.

White House Plans Government-Wide Freedom of Information Act Website

napcoverLast week, President Obama announced the 2013 U.S. Open Government National Action Plan with input from the public, civil society, academia, and the private sector, with the intent of building on lessons learned from the first plan. The 2013 National Action Plan has 23 “commitments” or action items, and the third one is Modernize the Freedom of Information Act:

Of interest to New Yorkers, The White House’s new plan calls for the creation of an online digital FOIA processing system with a public-facing portal for filing and tracking requests, as well as a back-end portal for FOIA officers processing and responding to those requests. We wrote about the EPA pilot program for this portal last year, and are pleased to see it rolling out to more than just a handful of agencies. (Read the rest of the plan here.)

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is the federal inspiration for New York State’s own Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). In 1996, FOIA was revised  and new reporting requirements created. The 1996 update requires federal agencies to report basic statistics that help agency management and the public better understand how FOIA is working.In contrast, New York’s Freedom of Information Law includes zero reporting requirements, and as a result, the public has no objective data on how well FOIL is working.  Federal agencies are required to report on the number of FOIA requests they receive, how quickly they respond to those requests, how many requests are granted/denied, how many Full Time Equivalent employees respond to requests, and so on. For nearly two decades, the US Department of Justice has reported how federal agencies process FOIA requests. New York State’s FOIL has seen no such update.

New York’s own FOIL law badly needs an updating for the digital age, and the new federal plan is a good place to find inspiration.