The Department of Health and Human Services will share its community and population health data with technology innovators and public health officials in the hope that they will use it to create new applications and tools to improve the health of Americans.
HHS will also develop a "one-stop shop" Web site where the public can access community health data, including Medicare performance data and a variety of health indicators from across geographic regions.
Under the Community Health Data Initiative (CHDI), HHS is turning to developers of Web applications, mobile phone applications, social media, and other cutting-edge information technologies to "put our public health data to work," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said June 2 at a forum at the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine (IOM).
"Our national health data constitute a precious resource that we are paying billions to assemble, but then too often goes wasting," she said. "When information sits on the shelves of government offices, it is underperforming. We need to bring these data alive."
The data can help raise awareness of the state of community health and trigger action by community leaders, healthcare providers and consumers about where and how to improve it, according to Todd Park, HHS's chief technology officer.
The data project's leaders took as their inspiration the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) use of weather data, Park said. NOAA furnishes 98 percent of all weather data, which is used by broadcasters, policymakers, travel industry firms, in myriad applications, he noted.
"The Weather Channel, Weather.com and nightly local newscasters take that data and turn it into other products, services and insights that are useful to Americans," Park said.
Much of the community health data that HHS has made available on an interim Web site at has been in the public domain for years, Park said. But developers had no idea of its existence, and it was very hard to find and use.
"Just making it known that we have this data that's available to you and turning it into a form that is easily accessible can spark huge amounts of innovation, and on top of that, unleash even more data," Park said, adding that HHS will actively market its data.
Since HHS and IOM hosted a meeting in March to explore the feasibility of the community data effort, developers have created or refined 16 software applications that make use of publicly available health data, he said.
These include Web tools that enable people to easily understand health performance in one county versus another, dashboards that graphically detail for civic leaders an understanding of their community's health status and how they might improve it, and an online game that lets players learn local health status facts compared with other localities.
Other applications provide an enhanced Web search that integrates hospital performance data into hospital search results and mobile phone-based tools for health information for consumers.
For example, the iTriage mobile application can connect a person searching for healthcare providers by tapping the information resources of 7,500 federally qualified health centers, whose databases had previously been locked up in HHS systems.
In December, HHS will debut its permanent community health data Web site, the Health Indicators Warehouse, which will offer currently available and new data on national, state, regional, and county health performance. The data will provide information on population health indicators, such as rates of smoking, obesity, diabetes, access to healthy food, and the usage of health care services.
"This will generate a ton of insight," Park said.
Details on the initiative are available on hhs.gov/open.