Obama touts free and open data, says it creates jobs

One app-based firm says government data 'critical' to its success

As the government cuts its own employment, federal agencies are trying to stimulate job creation by making vast amounts of government data freely available.

The Obama administration says that its Data.gov initiative, started in 2009, is creating jobs and providing fodder for start-ups.

On Monday, President Barack Obama pointed to some start-ups that have made use of government data to build businesses.

"What's happening is entrepreneurs and business owners are now using that data -- the people's data --to create jobs and solve problems that government can't solve by itself or can't do as efficiently," said Obama.

Exactly how many jobs Data.gov can be credited with is not known. But what is known is that budget actions are steadily reducing government employment. Federal employment declined by 5,000 jobs in June, and has fallen by 65,000 jobs over the past 12 months, according to the Labor Dept.

One government data-aided company is called iTriage. It offers an app that provides a range of medical information about doctors, medications, clinics and hospitals, as well as symptoms research. About 9.5 million have downloaded it.

It's also employing approximately 105 people, about half of whom are software engineers, said Dr. Wayne Guerra, an emergency room physician who is cofounder of iTriage. It is using a number of government data sets to deliver its information services.

"Not having to pay for these data sets was hugely advantageous to us," said Guerra, who called the government data critical to his firm.

One of the first data sets that they used was physician identification information in the government's NPI Registry. That was the starting point for a physician database. A second database was used to identify community health centers that serve the underserved population. Another data set identifies mental health clinics and substance abuse centers.

A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) bio-surveillance data set was used to develop a multi-symptom processor. It took about 18 months of development work to create the app functionality that utilizes it. This survey data from providers represents a million patient visits and allows for improved symptom understanding based on age and gender, said Guerra.

The company also incorporates some of its own analytical tools along with the CDC data, and it also gives users an avatar to work with in researching symptoms.

Guerra said iTriage began in Sept. 2008 and released its first app in 2009. In 2011 it was acquired by Aetna.

Guerra said Aetna acquired the firm as a patient engagement tool, but he said that iTriage continues to operate as an independent firm. The company makes revenue, in part, by offering physicians enhanced listings about their practices.

"When you look at where the all the new jobs are coming from, they are coming from small businesses," said Guerra.

Use of Data.gov has been on the rise. In May, 2013, the site had 213,000 visitors, more than double the number of visitors from the year-ago month.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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