HHS embraces bottom-up innovation

Wednesday - 1/5/2011, 6:01pm EST

Todd Park, Chief Technology Officer, Department of Health and Human Services

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The entrepreneurial spirit is alive -- Just look to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Under the guidance of Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, HHS has embraced an "innovation from the bottom up" mentality that has resulted in real-world application.

From opening data to developers, to holding innovation contests within the agency, HHS has seen success come from "virtual start-up" efforts that ultimately serve the public.

One example is a mobile health application called Text4Baby, a public-private partnership that sends text messages to expecting parents about the development of their baby during pregnancy and how to best take care of the baby after birth.

Currently, more than 100,000 people are signed up to receive Text4Baby texts. The application will be a model for the Text4Health task force that will examine how the technology can be applied to smoking cessation, obesity and childhood health issues, Park said.

Text4Baby is "an example of one [idea] that wasn't a leadership-designated program but one where really cool stuff happened," Park said in an interview with In Depth with Francis Rose.

The smartest move for leaders wanting to innovate is simply asking their employees what they are working on and "obsessed with," Park said.

By "co-creating" a vision for a project, the whole team has ownership, he said. The result: "you get a better vision and you get a better execution of that vision."

Under Park, HHS has opened up innovation to the public with the Community Health Data Initiative, Park said.

The idea was to publish HHS health data online and -- more importantly -- market it to developers who could create real-world applications, products and services, Park said.

"The whole idea was to turn HHS into the NOAA of health data," Park said, referring to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration's publishing of weather and environmental data.

For the most part, HHS had already made this data public, but the information was sometimes "impossible" to find. With the initiative, HHS could take the data that had been used for specific purposes and put it in the hands of innovators, Park said.

Right now the federal government is a "phenomenal place to be" as an entrepreneur, Park said.

"I've spent my life as a private sector entrepreneur but the most entrepreneurial experience I've ever had is the last year and a half I've spent in government," Park said.