An "All-Out Crazy Party"… Of Data
Innovative organizations are figuring out new ways to use publicly available data to solve the world's most intractable problems – think global poverty or climate change. This is good news for those whose mission it is to tackle these problems. It's also good news for business.
Recently we've seen a new example of this in the so-called "datapaloozas" that the United States Government CTO Todd Park has been hosting with the health industry. A palooza, according to the urban dictionary, is "an all-out crazy party." It started in March 2010 when Park hosted a brainstorming workshop and brought together 45 health entrepreneurs and innovators at the Institute of Medicine giving them government data with which to work.
But this was not your typical brainstorming meeting. Park did several things that not only produced results but also made these events a promising way to solve thorny problems: He got the stages right, put the innovators in charge, and encouraged real-life application of data.
The party plan. The datapalooza involved three phases of work:
1. Priming the pump. This is the room at the Institute of Medicine where practitioners were holed up for eight hours, thinking through real life applications that needed the data. The CTO's office calls these "data jams."
2. Showcasing the results. The second stage of the palooza was a showcase event which highlighted the innovations, brought them to venture capital, the broader market, and kept the enthusiasm alive by announcing additional prizes to be awarded a few months afterward.
3. Continuing the work. After the showcase, there was a continuous campaign of meet-ups, conference calls, and a nationwide series of hackathons, to go deeper to solve the problems and test the products, services, and apps.
This model created real, measurable business opportunities while tackling public problems.
Innovators in charge. By having the event driven by healthcare professionals, Park has put the problem solvers in charge. There's something quite magical about matchmaking between businesspeople and policy wonks with a problem, idea, or opportunity and technologists with potential solutions. At the Personal Democracy Forum in 2012, Park remarked that since expertise is fragmented - everyone is specializing so much - that there is a huge arbitrage opportunity in matching up experts from different sectors.
The government's role in all this was to provide access to key datasets (e.g. community health data, hospital data, etc.). The innovators were brought into a room, the data was "piled onto a table" and the government representatives asked if anything useful could be built with it. Then they let the innovators get to work.
Real-life application of data. Data is only useful if it is applied. "You can't pour data on a wound and heal it! You can't pour data on your house and make it naturally more energy efficient!" insists Park. "Data by itself is useless - it is only useful if it gets applied."
After eight hours of brainstorming, Todd's first palooza produced over 20 ideas for new apps and products: "So we told them, see what you can put together in 90 days and we will then showcase your innovations," says Park. "Three months later, they showcased 20+ apps and services and stunned everybody."
At minimal cost to taxpayer and the Department for Health and Human Services, the first showcase was co-sponsored by the Institute of Medicine and held in June 2010 and swiftly gained momentum. Just two years later, at the third health datapalooza, 230 companies competed for 100 slots to present their data-driven innovations to a crowd of over 1,500 in Washington D.C.
The after party. The ecosystem effect seems to be working: there are now a host of mobile-health events from RockHealth to Start Up Health inspired by Park's datapaloozas. Jody Rank at Gigaom wrote shortly before the 2012 event that the datapalooza was taking the "pulse of mobile-health."
"Anyone can use this raw material to take action and solve a problem," explains Aman Bhandari, a key architect of the approach, "from medical students to seasoned entrepreneurs".
In 2012, for instance, two young medical students at Johns Hopkins used Center for Disease Control data to build Symcat, a web and mobile app that using data-driven algorithms allows sick people to find out what they may have and what to do about it. The pair received a $100,000 prize from the Robert Wood Johnson foundation announced during the 2012 Datapalooza.
Paloozas beyond healthcare – education, energy, development.
The way government data is getting used in the U.S. has changed. Data is now not only "open," but it is also published in a manner that makes it possible to reuse this information on the Internet without an implausible investment of time or effort. Innovators in sectors ranging from healthcare, to education, energy, and global development are using and applying the data in exciting ways to solve real world problems.
What we learn from Park's model is that it is not enough to just dump the data out there and hope for the best. He and his team created an exciting methodology to encourage businesses and nonprofits to use and apply government data. At the last event, over 230 startups applied to showcase their creative use of open government data. And now, the 2-day event is hosted and funded by nonprofits and private-sector entities. The method itself has a great potential to be replicated in other sectors.
The model is still in its infancy and questions remain about whether it can scale. "We need more examples of success to spur more events" according to Personal Democracy Forum's Andrew Rasiej. The next frontier is to see how the datapalooza model can be applied to other geographies in the U.S. and across the world.
In the meantime, as the innovators tweak the party design and details, governments can pay heed to what the inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners Lee has said: "the simple message to governments around the world must be consistent and forceful: raw data, now!"