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Healthcare data wrangler named White House head of tech

Healthcare data wrangler named White House head of tech

Posting in Energy

Former healthtech exec Todd Park, the new US chief technology officer, has already brought his entrepreneurial approach to the health department. And now he'll bring his data expertise to the White House.

On Friday, the President announced that Todd Park will be the country's new chief technology officer. He will replace Aneesh Chopra, who was the first person to hold the position created by Obama on his first day in office. (Watch a SmartPlanet interview with Chopra here.)

Park's path thus far is fascinating and inspiring, and gives me high hopes that government data may become more accessible. At the age of 24, he co-founded Athenahealth, a wildly successful medical software company that earned him enough money to retire on. Then in 2008, he co-founded Castlight Health, a comparison shopper for healthcare costs.

But he left the tech startup world in 2009 when he was asked to become CTO of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

While he was there, he sculpted the HHS's "mountains of data" about healthcare, as described in a profile of Park published in the Atlantic last year, into services that are now used, not only by consumers and citizens, but by many web applications and companies -- and all for no charge. But it's not just the deed that makes him a data wrangler, but the way he went about it: by running the department "like a Silicon Valley startup."

On June 2 of last year [2010], around 400 people gathered at the National Academy of Sciences building in D.C. ... Standing at the front of the room, Park told [leaders in the health care and tech industries] that starting within the next few days, his team would begin releasing massive amounts of health care data across all the various agencies under HHS (some of it had already been released, but in obscure locations not easily accessible). Their task, if they chose to accept it, would be to spend the next 90 days building technology tools around that data. The ones that succeeded would be able to present their creations at the National Academy of Sciences for what had been named the Community Health Data Initiative Forum.

The result of this project was twenty new or improved tools to make healthcare data accessible, including hospital comparisons, treatment access, a community health center directory, and even a game using health data. Much of the data is now centralized at the Health Data Initiative hub.

Perhaps his most enduring healthcare contribution, however, is the creation of Healthcare.gov, a comprehensive search of public and private insurance providers.

According to a press release, the President wants him to bring the same spirit to the White House.

Hired as the department’s "entrepreneur-in-residence," Park has been helping HHS harness the power of data, technology, and innovation to improve the health of all Americans. The President has asked him to bring that same approach to a broader mission – helping to replicate those and other best practices across government and bring them to scale.

Of course, in his new role he'll be in charge of many departments beyond healthcare, focusing upon "Administration priorities, including job creation, broader access to affordable health care, enhanced energy efficiency, a more open government, and national and homeland security," said the press release.

The idea of Park making government data more widely accessible and available is an uplifting thought -- and certainly, given Park's history, there are high expectations. However, he'll only be able to deliver if he's given the freedom to work as a true "entrepreneur-in-residence" in the White House as he was at HHS.

What do you think his priorities should be?

Photo: Flickr/Maria Ly

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Hannah Waters

Weekend Editor

Weekend Editor Hannah Waters is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She writes a blog on the Scientific American network, and has written for Nature Medicine and The Scientist. She holds Biology and Latin degrees from Carleton College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure