Paul Zeitz is Director of the Data Revolution for Sustainable Development Team.
Over the last century, we’ve seen new technologies revolutionize health and save lives. The first antibiotic was discovered in 1928 giving doctors a tool to completely cure patients of deadly infections. In 2003, the human genetic code was completed, paving the way for a boom in medical research and live-saving treatments that are still multiplying. And today we are experiencing the start of the next revolution in health: open data.
There is more data available today than ever before. Some estimate that 90% of all the data in the world has been generated over the last two years. Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, has notably said that every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization through 2003. Let me repeat that: we generate more information in two days than we did over the course of thousands of years.
This unprecedented deluge of data is starting to be harnessed to improve health in countries and communities around the world. Data are transforming how people manage their own health (have you checked your FitBit today?), how people choose and rate their health care providers, how research is conducted and advanced, and how public health services are managed. Here are a few areas where the open data revolution for health is taking off:
- Citizen Engagement and Feedback: Open data allow for real-time feedback on health and health services, empowering people with information to improve their health and closing the feedback loop between practitioners and patients. For example, Yelp, probably the most ubiquitous example of a crowd sourced user-review platform, recently added data on average emergency room wait times, fines a facility may have paid, and serious deficiencies reported on all listings for hospitals and other health care services. Data Uruguay, in partnership with the Ministry of Public Health, created a tool called “At Your Service” to harness open health data from the government to empower patients to choose their health care provider by comparing key performance metrics annually. And Web 3.0 has created a pilot for an app that they hope will answer health questions in a manner similar to “Siri” to help address the growing shortage of health care workers in some parts of the world.
- Research and Development: The open data movement is beginning to create a new culture of sharing among health researchers and product developers – a notoriously closed space – that has the potential to catalyze innovation and breakthroughs in medicine. For example, Figshare – a repository where users can make all of their research outputs available in a citable, shareable and discoverable way – includes a trove of data on everything from community and child health to cancer cell biology (check out their category on health sciences). Also, the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) made 400 diverse compounds with antimalarial activity available free of charge, asking only that researchers publish any data generated in the public domain. This helped create an open and collaborative forum for neglected diseases drug research, and resulted in new drugs being developed. The company has now released a Pathogen Box which includes 400 compounds with active effects against 13 pathogens, with hope to boost neglected disease drug discovery.
- Public Health Management: Public health donors, international organizations, and civil society organizations are using open data to better inform decision making and increase the impact of investments in health. The U.S. Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is using data in transformational ways to prevent more HIV infections and save more lives, opening as much of data as possible while protecting individual and community confidentiality. Earlier this year, PEPFAR published 2015 annual program results at the subnational level, enabling stakeholders to view, download, and utilize PEPFAR data in more accessible ways.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg; countless exist and each are paving the way for the open data revolution in health. But challenges exist to fully realize the potential of open data. First, open data for open data’s sake is not enough. As we work to get real-time, dynamic and disaggregated data into the hands of citizens, health service providers, and other stakeholders, we must simultaneously work to build their capacity to use that data to inform decision-making and drive innovative solutions at the individual, local, and national level. Second, we need to harness open data to ensure that all resources for health are having the greatest possible impact.
We’ve seen new technologies revolutionize health over the last century. Looking forward, we can envision a world where every person in the world has access to the best available and most relevant, timely information to improve their health, optimize access to services, and accelerate the next generation of health innovations. The open data revolution for health is here; we must harness it to drive action and deliver on this vision.
Featured image: freestocks.org