The Data Briefing: Innovating Health Data at the HHS IDEA Lab

Nov 18, 2015

By the time this is published, the United States, along with 160 other countries, will be celebrating Global Entrepreneurship Week (November 16th through November 22nd). November is also National Entrepreneurship Month with November 17th being National Entrepreneurs’ Day. As President Obama stated in his proclamation: “In keeping with our goal of fostering economic growth through private-sector collaboration, the federal government is accelerating the movement of new technologies from the laboratory to the marketplace, increasing access to research awards for small businesses, making more data open to the public [emphasis mine] and catalyzing new industry partnerships in critical fields such as advanced manufacturing and clean energy.”

Futuristic concept art of medical icons and binary data streams


The Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship, and Action (IDEA) Lab is an outstanding example of a federal agency using open data to foster economic growth through empowering federal employees with innovative ideas and opening health data to the private sector. The IDEA Lab supports eight major programs and initiatives for both internal HHS employees and external entrepreneurs/innovators-in-residence to work on innovative projects. In 2010, HHS created their Health Data Initiative to “make health data openly available, disseminate the data broadly across the health and human services ecosystem and continuously educate internal and external participants about the value of data.”

As part of the Health Data Initiative, HHS launched that now has close to 2,000 data sets on topics such as Medicaid, community health and Medicare costs. has a searchable interface similar to, which makes it easy for developers to locate the appropriate datasets for a mobile app or similar data product. The blog is also a useful resource for developers looking for ideas or challenges to build the next great health mobile app.

A screen capture of the website page for the Indian (Native American) Health Service (IHS) division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The dataset is for an I H S Facility Locator.

HHS is also forward-thinking in how it cultivates innovation among HHS employees. The first IDEA Lab program is the HHS Ignite Accelerator in which employee teams are given six months to test out an idea to improve a process or modernize an HHS product or service. Employees are trained in lean startup methodology and graduates of the program go on to mentor other Ignite teams. The HHS Ventures Fund program is for the development of proven ideas that will “dramatically improve their Office, Agency or the Department’s ability to carry out its mission.” HHS also has two programs where employees can hire outside accomplished entrepreneurs and innovators for one to two years to work on “high risk, high reward” projects.

The U.S. federal government has a long history of aiding entrepreneurs and innovators from supporting the building of the transcontinental railroad to the building of the Internet. Opening up the federal government’s data is another way to support American innovation and economic growth while protecting the health, safety and security of the American people.

Each week, The Data Briefing showcases the latest federal data news and trends.

Dr. William Brantley is the Training Administrator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Global Intellectual Property Academy. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the USPTO or GSA.