Updates from the “PIFS” – Presidential Innovation Fellows

On August 23, 2012, United States Chief Technology Officer Todd Park announced the first class of Presidential Innovation Fellows. The 18 Fellows, chosen from a pool of nearly 700 applicants, agreed to spend six months in Washington D.C., “to work on five high-impact projects aimed at supporting entrepreneurs, small businesses and the economy, while significantly improving how the Federal Government serves the American people.” The five high-impact projects, include: MyGov, which focuses on improving citizens’ digital interactions with government; Open Data, tasked with improving the Administration’s access to government information programs; Blue Button for America, an initiative to give users greater access and control of their health data and records; RFP-EZ, an effort to give innovative smaller businesses the opportunity to submit proposals for federal contract work; and The 20% Initiative, which seeks to save the government money by moving from cash to electronic payments to support foreign policy, development assistance, government operations and commercial activities. Park described the Fellows program as leveraging “the ingenuity of leading problem solvers from across America together with federal innovators to tackle projects that aim to fuel job creation, save taxpayers money and improve the lives of Americans in tangible ways.” Now, almost six months later, several of the initiatives – including The Blue Button, MyGov, Open Data and RFP-EZ projects –  have each recently announced new progress.

Blue Button Plus, formerly known as the Automate Blue Button Initiative, is a program focused on updating and expanding the original Blue Button program. Working with the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), the Fellows are moving toward the creation of a patient health data ecosystem that allows for more than just simple access to health records. Right now, Blue Button health data can be accessed as an unformatted ASCII text block. Blue Button Plus data, on the other hand, will be in a format that will allow for third-party apps to convert the information into “easy-to-use graphical interfaces.” The new program will also allow third-party apps to access continually updated records, removing the need to manually sign in or download records for each use. By increasing the interoperability of patient health data through new standards, the hope is that people will not only have more control of their health information, but a thriving, open health data ecosystem will be created, benefitting the individual and creating new economic opportunities.  The Blue Button Plus program could also be a part of Stage 3 of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act’s (HIPAA) Meaningful Use guidelines, which will go into effect in 2016 at the earliest. Stage 1 focused on giving consumers access to health data, and Stage 2, expected to be implemented in either 2013 or 2014, will give users greater ability to download and transmit the data. While government data holders—like Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans Affairs and the military—will implement Blue Button Plus directly, private data holders—like hospitals, doctors and private insurers—are also being asked to make patient data available in the same way. As such, the Blue Button Pledge was created to increase awareness of the program and encourage private actors to join the program. The Blue Button Mashup Challenge, which asked developers to create new apps integrating patient health records with other sources of information, is another program focused on increasing awareness and demonstrating Blue Button Plus’s potential. A full draft implementation guide will be launched by the end of January, giving stakeholders guidance on how to transmit data to patients, as well as information on privacy and security. Presidential Innovation Fellow Dr. Henry Wei encourages patients to make their desire for increased control of their health information known, because the current, less open medical health data space is not the result of evil data holders; rather, “it’s just inertia.”

Next, the MyGov team announced the new MyGov Discovery Bar, a toolbar that “will slide into view when users reach the bottom of a federal Web page suggesting related government pages the reader might be interested in.” The team notes that “the government web is two things: big, and distributed,” and, as such, the goal behind the creation of the toolbar is allowing users “to see other resources, programs, benefits, services, forms,” and any other government information that could be “relevant to what you’re trying to accomplish.” The Fellows are currently working with agencies to make the Discovery Bar standard “across the federal web,” and state and local governments are also welcome to participate in the project. As work continues on wider implementation, users can sign up for the beta, which, in addition to providing the basic discovery functionality, will also allow users to see the information tags associated with their pages and offer project feedback.

The Open Data team’s “experimental work in progress” Alpha.Data.gov is “a collection of open data from the government, private sector, and non-profits that are fueling a new economy.” The new site displays an apparent focus on design, usability and approachability in comparison to Data.gov, a more full-featured data portal that would likely prove intimidating to those inexperienced with data and app development. In addition to the expected links to raw data and tools to engage with data, Alpha.Data.gov provides basic information on available data from different sectors, as well as relevant examples of companies and products that leverage that data. The portal organizes its data and information into seven broad types of categories: Commerce, Energy, Health, Education, Safety, Finance and Development.

Finally, the RFP-EZ project introduced a new pilot program that gives agencies the chance to use a new request for proposals tool focused on web-related services from small businesses. The goal of the pilot program, which will run from December 28 to May 1, 2013, is to “show the tool can lower the hurdle for participation in the federal market” for “high-growth startups” that specialize in web design and related technology areas. In addition to giving agencies more access to small businesses’ proposals, the program will include support for small businesses in the creation of proposals and the opportunity to have those proposals evaluated. One piece of the new platform, called the Portfolio Browser, “will allow agencies to create lists of small business offerings related to the service they need, and provide a historical set of service data and prices to ease the comparison and selection process.” Consistent with the overarching goals of the RFP-EZ program, the pilot program is designed to simultaneously make it easier for smaller businesses to enter to the federal marketplace, improve agencies’ efficiency and decrease the cost to taxpayers.

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