Opening Data to Improve Public Health

The Landmark Launch of the California Department of Public Health’s Open Data Portal

Health and Human Services may be the (or one of the) most important agencies to engage with open data. Public health departments, in particular, analyze and understand threats to the public’s wellbeing— a vitally important civic function. Your local Department of Public Health, for instance, strives to keep you up-to-date of your risk of contagious disease, the emergence of environmental hazards, and the likelihood of contracting food borne illness. Those are just few examples of the wide array of measures and indicators they watch vigilantly. Through a vast network of agencies ranging from state and county public health departments to the federal CDC and HHS, public health officials now have access to more data and tools than ever to accurately monitor and assess threats to the general public.

But that’s just the start. After you understand an issue, you have to do something about it. For that, they need to have effective mechanisms to engage the public. Indeed, public health departments actively reach out to the public through various means including newspaper inserts, physical ads, etc. New mediums including email, social media, and other digital interfaces are helping dramatically widen that reach.

In many ways, these agencies have always been in the open data business, just through older means, but by going open and online, they can become more connected and innovative.

Central, however, to a public health department’s operations for any outreach function in the 21st century should be open data. As has has been seen time and time again, open data itself acts as an information delivery mechanism, just be having it online, and when integrated into apps, existing services, or new ones, they take what’s too often cooped up in a government server and deliver it into the palm of your hand. Just consider how San Francisco opened up its restaurant inspection scores to integrate them into the widely popular consumer platform, Yelp. Indeed, this role of the public health agency as a communicator means that open data can be a game-changer.

To advance an open data agenda with a health-oriented institution comes with it serious concerns around privacy, integrity, and access — real challenges, but solvable ones with care and leadership. That’s why I was pleased to see that recently, with the support of the California Healthcare Foundation, the California Department of Public Health launched its open data portal:

“The California Department of Public Health today launched its Open Data Portal, which will allow user-friendly access to the data it collects about important public health issues. This data can be used to craft solutions to public health concerns while providing more transparency in government…

This — to my knowledge—is the first state-level open data portal in California. The Golden State boasts many of the most active open governments (Los Angeles, Palo Alto, Oakland, just to name a few) and entrepreneurs abound in both private and public industries. Yet, this marks a watershed moment for the state government, as CADPH embarks on its open data journey. One can only hope that other agencies follow their lead, and learn from their example, as I’m sure governments across the country can and will. Why? Because CADPH‘s open data rollout, by most accounts, breaks fresh ground in terms of design and launch.

Indeed, this role of the public health agency as a communicator means that open data can be a game-changer.


The CADPH site seems to strike a balance, with a richly graphical user interface. The homepage includes data, stories, visualized metrics, and developer information, with clear navigation right at the start. (Diving in deeper, you will see that this homepage sits a front a typical Socrata open data portal with typical rows of sortable, searchable datasets — wrapped in a slightly cleaner design.)

What this homepage design tacitly does is segment the user base into personas: say, subject matter experts seeking data; citizens or journalists exploring stories; and developers eager for APIs and design references. Consider the value this kind of structure could have for analytics and user understanding: if properly instrumented, this site could tell the government (and any interested citizens) what kinds of users are coming to the site, where they are coming from, and how valuable they are finding it. This is vital data as you consider and design calls-to-action for these high value demographics.

None of this is groundbreaking on its own; yet, together, they do give us a new opportunity to engage users and understand their use of open data.

The Process: Design & Launch

How did they come to this savvy design? Through community engagement. The CADPH worked hand-in-hand with state officials and members of the local civic hacking community (Code for Sacramento) to hammer out an innovative design. (See the video above for more.) In a collaborative event, the group printed out screenshots of a number of data portals from around the world, tearing them up into their constitutive parts, and then piece them back together with their favorite elements: a data portal reconstruction.

This illustrates one of the benefits to later entrants into the open data space; instead of having to start from scratch, they can weave together the best elements of previous efforts into what’s just right for them. It’s a kind of patchwork innovation.

The Role of Open Data

Reading through CADPH’s announcement one sentence stood out:

While much of this data is currently available on the CDPH website, the Open Data Portal will improve access, so researchers, policy makers, technology experts and others can, for example, use the data to create mobile applications (apps) to solve local challenges.

This sentence reminded me of the obvious relationship between city websites that have been around for years and these new data portals that have only come onto the scene (sometimes in just the past few months). It’s a reminder that in a certain way, open data is not anything new. For older stalwarts of the transparency movement, they’ll know what I mean. Decades ago the civic hacking movement began with “scraping” government websites for data, and pushing them into old school data portals: hosted FTP servers, and the like. That’s a very different world than the one we live in now. With the advent of government-sponsored data portals, the appointment of Chief Data Officers, etc, it’s clear we’ve come a long way. The world of civic data is very different now.

But the fundamentals remain: Government has always been in the communications business. Before it was websites and even handouts, now it’s open data portals and APIs. Better access to government data means that that information is more democratized. Paired with the democratization of technology — the ease with which a research can take open data and run an analysis, the speed with this a developer and port over their existing tool to a new location—we start to see this role of government as a communicator turn into one as a collaborator.

Data then becomes less of a one-way dissemination tool, and more of a connective tissue for many-to-many collaboration.

With the various institutions working towards better health outcomes — public health agencies, hospitals, nonprofits, startups, etc — now more than ever coordination is needed, and open data, along with open dialogue, can make that happen. Consider the opportunities for alignment: the agency could make simple updates to refresh the data catalog; that data could be pushed to citizens directly via, say, a startup developed app; new citizen behavior could be mapped by an NGO; and the overall health outcomes could be tracked and reported by the hospitals, feeding back in then into the data portal. Then repeat. The cycle continues. The sequencing will surely vary, but the similar, positive outcomes should not: improving public health by helping people dedicated to a cause do their jobs better and faster.

This cycle, however, would not be possible with the older systems for “open” data — getting the data would be too complex, using it too time-consuming. But that legacy is one we can build upon: since whatever information is already being put out there for the public through older channels is just that, public, these agencies have fewer hurdles to clear when building an open data program.

For such a program, a data platform is just the start. As we’ve seen time and time again, the truism, “If you build it, they will come,” just does not hold true. Open data has to be backed up by community management, developer relations, and constant vigilance to ensure data quality and relevancy.

Committing to an open data program, in the way CADPH is doing, you are embracing a new model; you are pulling out unstructured, hidden data and bringing it into the light — not just for transparency and accountability, but moving beyond that for meaningful usage by entrepreneurs inside government and out.