Connectathon 2015: Why You Should Care!

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By Amy Sheon, PhD, MPH
Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and Health & Wellness Consultant, OneCommunity

As the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on January 29th, “The scene in the Grand Ballroom of the Cleveland Convention Center on Wednesday defied just about anything seen in the city before.”

Row upon row of software developers hunched over laptops at tables that seemed to stretch the length of a football field, all seeking to ensure that applications they built would interconnect with those of other vendors. This annual event, held for the first time in Cleveland, was run by IHE USA, a non-profit that promotes national adoption of standards that enable interoperability of health IT systems.

Sounds kind of dull, huh?

In fact, what it represents is anything but.

First, these hundreds and hundreds of visitors would not have been in Cleveland but for the presence of our new Convention Center and the Global Center for Health Innovation. In years past, this event has been held in Chicago as there are not many facilities with the capacity to house and power computers for this many people at once. Now, the Global Center has the necessary capacity thanks to OneCommunity, Cleveland’s own non-profit broadband provider, and their 10 Gigabit ultra-high-speed fiber network that is available throughout the building.

Secondly, Figuring out the interoperability part is what many would consider the boring work. But thanks to the meticulous efforts going on behind the scenes, we are now starting to see ways we can benefit from the availability of this data.

Dr. Jennifer Foltz, an Epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention invited me to stop by Connectathon 2015. I have corresponded with Dr. Foltz and colleagues around the country for at least a couple of years in conjunction with the Healthy Weight Surveillance Initiative. This project is figuring out how to use information captured by electronic health records to understand the magnitude of the obesity epidemic in various communities, and the success of efforts to address it. My participation in the group arose from an effort I had led to design and develop a childhood obesity tracking system for the State of Michigan that used their very robust immunization registry.  In that effort, Michigan became one of, if not the first state, to have a method for state level obesity surveillance. My colleague was attending the event to support the work of vendors who are creating ways to use this data, now that common standards have been developed so that data from different systems can talk to one another.

Of course, development of surveillance tools for public health purposes may not float your boat. But how about this?

On January 23, Dr. Bechara Choucair, former Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health visited Case Western Reserve University at the invitation of Dr. George Kikano, Director of the Weatherhead Institute for Family Medicine and Community Health. Dr. Choucair left the audience awestruck in describing how Chicago is using open data to improve health. With guidance from insurance actuaries, they developed a model that allowed them to predict restaurants that were most likely to fail inspections. This gave their restaurant inspectors a fighting chance to focus on facilities in most need of remediation. Mining Twitter feeds for reports suggestive of food-borne illness, they contacted writers to find out where they had eaten. Not only were those restaurants promptly inspected but the ill patrons were sent notification of the outcome of the inspections. Chicagoans are starting to see their governments as “here to help.”

This opportunity, too, is coming to Cleveland. After several years of planning, has just launched as a one-stop shop to find data on health and the determinants of health in our region. An even bigger effort is underway to expand the concept of open data beyond the health sector to government, the environment, education, and the like. We are moving toward defining common standards so that data sets can talk to one another, so to speak. When we reach that point, the app developers can get to work making the data useful for all.

With the enormous health and health information resources in our region, plus an enviable gigabit fiber broadband network, no place is better positioned than Cleveland to turn boring interoperability standards into innovations and applications that save lives, save money, save the environment, and make us happy.

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