News Challenge: Make APIs not apps, health CEO says

Photo credit: Flickr user melloveschallah.

Knight News Challenge: Health offers applicants a chance to share in more than $2 million by focusing on the question: “How can we harness data and public information for the health of communities?” Below, Lucky Gunasekara, CEO of Liv, a health care data and analytics firm based in Oakland, Calif., writes about the need for more data catalysts in health innovation. RELATED LINKS 

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Medicine is measurement. Whether it’s poking and prodding a patient during a physical exam, gently interrogating them on their personal life and family history, or sending their blood and urine samples to the lab, “information gathering” is one of the many daily skills one has to hone as a physician. Working out what to measure and making contextualized inferences based on the resulting data is the challenging craft of every physician.

So whenever I read an article that proclaims that the age of “data-driven medicine” is nigh, I often have to wonder what the author is talking about—and if a marketing campaign is afoot. Unless your M.D. is “Dr. Nick” from “The Simpsons,” data definitely plays a central role in your health care.

So what’s all the fuss? Well, an unprecedented volume of health data is becoming liquid. Your health information is no longer frozen in paper clinical notes or locked up in a database silo. Due to a mix of new platforms and apps, recent policy changes and market pressures, more and more of your health information is now directly written from the moment you walk into a clinic into structured databases that are topped with a plethora of APIs, protocols and services to port and mash up your data. Couple this with a boom in self-tracking devices, services and apps, and we are rapidly approaching a reality where a continuous record of your personal health, both inside and outside of the four walls of a clinic, is being captured.

Before you get swept up in a sense of utopian euphoria about the possibilities here, there is a bit of bad news. This data is a bit…well, messy. Getting data out of fragmented systems is just the first trick; cleaning it and managing it is a Sisyphean nightmare in and of itself. Even worse is making sense of it in the context of all the other available data.

Given all of this, we in health care may be more in need of “data janitors” than data scientists. Take medication data, for instance. Compared to APIs and open datasets for movie times by location or box office returns, there’s a paucity of well-designed and well-managed APIs on our pharmaceuticals industry. The Federal Drug Administration and the National Library of Medicine have published a truly prodigious amount of datasets and APIs covering the vast diversity of drugs on the market, but querying, parsing and leveraging that data is not easy. And once this wealth of prescription drug data is in your hands, there’s the tricky task of making it useful, such as summarizing the jargon and legalese into a simple “Should I take this?” service.

Then there’s the data that’s not easily available. Drug prices offer a good example. The market-clearing price in San Francisco of a month’s worth of Lipitor isn’t an easy-to-find-out value. Before services like GoodRx hit the market, you either had to buy that data from brokers, take on the thankless task of crowdsourcing that data. Or worse: Pick up the phone and cold-call every pharmacy in the area on at least a weekly basis. Just getting these datasets often means building and deploying crawlers and scrapers over the open web to collect, clean and standardize the data, not to mention bartering for and directly collecting the data that’s not in plain sight.

So when I heard about the Knight News Challenge: Health, my immediate thought was Please, let’s see more APIs than apps. I like apps, but useful and easy-to-use APIs are far more important right now as catalysts for innovation. One well-made and powerful API can spark hundreds of amazing products and services for the public and clinicians. And every app built in spite of the absence of a critical API represents a massive duplication of effort and inefficiency in the ecosystem.

Think about the amount of time it would take to build a mobile app for patients to snap a photo of their prescriptions, find the nearest pharmacy offering the best prices and discounts and send it in. Then consider the amount of data that would have to be collected on pharmacies, drugs, pricing… But spend an hour digging through the GoodRX APIs, and you’ll discover that much of that work has already been done. You could build that app now in a weekend.

So I will be waiting with high hopes for this next round of News Challenge submissions. What data is around the corner and what new products are waiting in the wings? I’m looking forward to finding out.

Lucky Gunasekara, is the CEO of Liv, a health care data and analytics firm based in Oakland, Calif. He is currently an adviser to the Pioneer portfolio of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one of the collaborators on Knight News Challenge: Health.

The “inspiration phase” of the News Challenge launches on Aug. 19. Entries will be accepted from Sept. 3 to Sept. 17. For more, see these related stories: Join us to brainstorm around News Challenge: Health, News Challenge seeks new approaches to health issues” and “Announcing key collaborators and details of Knight News Challenge: Health.”