DatapaloozzaFor decades, the pace of innovation in health informatics has been anything but fast. But now, thanks to a new data initiative out of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, professors like Cockrell School's Dr. Joydeep Ghosh can work with this newly released health data to develop health IT solutions more quickly.

"When it comes to health, the pace of innovation has been a crawl and not a sprint," said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. "Americans have waited a long time for health innovations and we do not need to make them wait any longer."

And that is just what Health and Human Services (HHS) is doing — cutting the waiting period by teaming up with innovators, venture capitalists and universities across the U.S., including The University of Texas at Austin and the Cockrell School of Engineering.

According to Sebelius, snail-paced breakthroughs in health data dissemination are soon to be a thing of the past thanks to key initiatives coming out of HHS, one of which is called the Health Data Initiative (HDI). This initiative releases vast amounts of consumer health data free of intellectual property constraints — information such as obesity rates, smoking rates, demographic identifiers and more.

"We are talking about transforming the health care system and health care in America," Sebelius said. "The power of this initiative is tapping into American ingenuity."

HHS said the objective of the HDI is to deploy free and open health data to help trigger the creation of new applications and technologies increasing awareness of community health, as well as enhancing accessibility of health information.

"Until recently, way too much of that data was hard to access, not easy to understand, [presented in] impossible formats and unknown to the public," Sebelius said. "The idea was if we made the data more accessible and helped put the innovators in touch with the information, we could empower consumers to take control over their own health."

Now, a plethora of data sets previously off limits or inaccessible are available for the development of new technologies, enabling patients and consumers to easily access health data.

It is this step where Ghosh, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Schlumberger Centennial Chair in Electrical Engineering, comes into play.

"This is of course a critical need for the nation," he said.

Ghosh, an expert in intelligent data analysis, data mining and web mining, has been working with the HDI data sets to inform his current research.

"I'm looking at what people buy in terms of foods and medicines and correlating it with various health measures," Ghosh said, "looking at different parts of the state and health measures. [This type of research] has a lot of use — it can inform better policy, nutritional information and many other things."

His research — health informatics — has a broad scope with a wide range of application, he said.

"The government has made unprecedented amounts of data public, which means there are a lot of opportunities in trying to do something useful and innovative with this data," Ghosh said. "In some sense there is a challenge with the intelligence side — but there are opportunities" with the technology side.

Ghosh hopes to offer a course in the future on health informatics to encourage students to get involved. After all, there is plenty of data to be analyzed, with anticipation of more data to be released.

"This is a great opportunity," he said. "I think engineering students need to be more exposed to the potential and possibilities here to help in this area of great national importance."

Ghosh was first introduced to the Health Data Initiative in March when Aneesh Chopra, chief technology officer for the United States, and Todd Park, chief technology officer for HHS, visited the Cockrell School to discuss a related endeavor — DC2VC.

DC2VC is a movement aimed at facilitating relationships between venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in the field of health IT. Watch a video of Park and Chopra from their March visit.

"We are fueling a growing arsenal of innovators — helping consumers take control of their health care," Park said.

Park spoke last week at the second annual Health Data Initiative Forum, or as he likes to call it, the Health Data Palooza, which was live streamed on the UT campus in the Avaya Auditorium of ACES.

Nearly 50 private and nonprofit entities showcased at Data Palooza their use of the health-related data to fuel applications and services that help consumers, providers, employers and communities advance health.

The Cockrell School hosted the June 9 watch party and The University of Texas at Austin was selected as just one of 11 schools selected to do so.

"I think we have crossed a threshold," Ghosh said. "Health expenses have slowly been increasing — a lot of things poke you and poke you and it finally gets to a point where you want to do something about it."

For more information on the Health Data Initiative, visit www.healthdata.gov.


Joydeep Ghosh holds the Schlumberger Centennial Chair in Electrical Engineering.

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