The Social Return on Data

You don’t normally find serial entrepreneurs working for the U.S. government. But Todd Park, who co-founded three companies by the time he was 36, believes he can help make Americans healthier.

Park, now 39, is the first chief technology officer hired by the Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. agency that administers Medicare and Medicaid and oversees the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health, among other agencies. He is the “entrepreneur-in-residence,” nudging the agency to open its vast stores of data to spur innovative ideas.

Park is teaching the normally plodding government agency how to think and act like a Silicon Valley startup: Get new products to market quickly, study customer reaction, and then make adjustments to find the best solution for that need. It’s right out of the entrepreneur’s handbook, except that Park has 313 million customers—the population of the U.S.

“He is not a Washington guy,” says O’Reilly Media founder Tim O’Rilley, who calls Park one of the most powerful data scientists around. “He’s a technology guy who is trying to figure out how to make the health-care system work.”

And work fast. Ninety days after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Park and a team launched, a website that helps consumers find health coverage plans from a database of all public and private plans by Zip Code (other sites are not comprehensive).

“It is possible to be entrepreneurial in the U.S. government,” says Park, who has been at HHS for two and a half years. “It’s possible for government to execute major projects at Silicon Valley speed.”

Bloomberg Businessweek’s Venessa Wong spoke by phone with Park about his role in transforming the way the government uses health technology. This interview has been condensed and edited.

What is the role of a chief technology officer at Health and Human Services?
The role was created two-and-a-half years ago. Its purpose is to be a tech entrepreneur-in-residence. I help conceive and lead projects that harness the power of data, technology, and innovation to improve the health of the American public. HHS wanted someone with entrepreneurial DNA to work with our best innovators here to dream up and launch new initiatives.

How can technology make people healthier?
Technology is never a panacea, but it can be an enabler of significantly improved health care and health-care systems. For example, there are key features of the Affordable Care Act that change how Medicare and Medicaid pay to reward keeping people healthy. Doctors will be funded and [provided incentives] to take actions that help avoid preventable complications, ER visits, and hospital admissions. Mobile technology and data analytics to help doctors identify care gaps, engage patients outside the medical office and at home through e-mails, follow-up through mobile apps, and to communicate with other doctors, are critical enablers for this kind of coordinated care.

Why did you decide to work for the Obama Administration?
I was [contacted] by Bill Corr, the deputy secretary of HHS, in the summer of 2009. He said HHS would like to talk about this position called “chief technology officer.” I was living in Los Altos Hills. I had retired from Athenahealth [a health IT and services company] and co-founded a couple of other companies, but I wasn’t running them. I had promised my wife I would be a functional husband. Bill said we have a lot of data and want to open it to catalyze change. The question was how to maximize social return on data. The job sounded incredibly interesting.

Amy, my wife, was incredibly angry, but after four days she said. “If they are creating an entrepreneur-in-residence position, then it’s your national duty to accept.” In a couple of months, we moved to D.C. with our baby, who had just turned one.

When you look back at your government service, what do you want your legacy to be?
I was talking to Bill Corr about lean startups. He asked, is this just something that you and your team can do, or can we scale it across HHS? It’s very scalable. I think it would be wonderful to make it easier for others to start lean startups and make change happen very quickly. I want to unlock the inner mojo of our workforce, to unlock the talents of the many innovators at HHS, and empower them to start their own lean startups at HHS. [The lean startup concept uses rapid prototypes to test assumptions and then incorporate customer feedback to improve the service or product. It’s much faster than traditional product development methods.]

What’s the biggest roadblock to getting this done?
The key challenge is having enough time in a day. We’re in execution mode. The will is there.

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