Gov 2.0 lessons from Pillbox app

Thursday - 7/28/2011, 5:46pm EDT

By Jolie Lee
Federal News Radio

Information about every single drug is available to the public and downloadable. But the data is useless when someone needs to figure out what a pill is right away.

Pillbox is an application that helps identify pills by their shape, color and marking. The app uses data from the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.

Pillbox is an example of the three fundamental concepts of open gov - transparency, participation and collaboration - at work, said David Hale, Project Manager of Pillbox at NLM, at the Next Generation of Government Summit in Washington.

A key to Pillbox's creation was getting outside of the agency, Hale said. When Pillbox was still in its conceptual phase, Hale started talking about the idea to computer programming and Gov 2.0 meetups throughout the country. He found out that the idea to make drug images and data available in a usable form was something others had thought about too.

Hale tapped into a community of programmers who worked on the idea on their own time and for free - sometimes out of friendly competition with each other. They shared their work on GitHub, an online resource for open source collaboration. The code got better and more efficient.

In one case, a college sophomore wrote the code for a voice-activated version of Pillbox, an idea that "years of sitting around a table" at NLM had not produced, Hale said.

Hale also put the idea out on social media. He tweeted about Pillbox from his personal account (@lostonroute66), and he received tweets back - in multiple languages.

"It got out of our control," Hale said.

Hale had to weigh when to take risks of putting government information online against the feedback he would receive. Sometimes the "slaps on the wrists" were followed with "atta boys," such as when Health and Human Services CIO Todd Park blogged about the app. Soon others were blogging about Pillbox and then major websites - like Mashable picked up on the story too.

But Pillbox also has its limitations in open gov. As much as its development relied on open data, the code is not open source.

And Hale said the future evolution of Pillbox is limited by resources. Someone listening to Hale's talk at the summit asked if the app could identify pills by taking a photo of the pill. Hale said the technology is available, but most likely those additional capabilities will come from private foundations.

"Don't try to make the super cool endpoint," Hale said. "Build the sandbox and everybody else will come in to build the super cool stuff for their own communities."

This story was part of the series "The New Face of Government."