CMS Improves Access to Healthcare Data

Data.medicare.gov is the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) flagship portal for sharing valuable data about health and healthcare in the US. The site is a key component of CMS’s efforts to align with the Digital Government Strategy and make valuable data open, accessible, and machine-readable by third parties, and as part of its broader open data efforts to improve health and health care.

Socrata worked with CMS to redesign data.medicare.gov to better serve both the needs of the site’s core data customers, as well as more casual users. The data needed to be available and accessible. The new design allows researchers, the private sector, policymakers, and others to easily browse, view, and download useful data on a broad range of topics related to health and health care

We spoke with Joe Pringle, a client services director at Socrata, about the redesign.

What are the goals for the site overall?

CMS uses this site to publish tremendously valuable data sets on hospitals, nursing homes, home health providers, and other topics. CMS data is used by a wide variety of researchers, policymakers, and the private sector to understand issues of cost, performance, access to care, quality, and other aspects of our health system.

Given the tremendous amount of change we are going through right now with health care reform, these datasets are tremendously valuable as we try to understand how we can improve health care and health outcomes. In open data we sometimes see cases where data publishers share data just because it exists, with little or no societal impact. That’s not the case here. CMS data is having a huge impact on an extremely important issue.

What were some of the goals for the redesign of the site?

CMS considered user feedback to better understand who uses the site, how they use the data, and how to make the site even more useful to them. CMS found that core data user needs were very different from those of more “casual” data users.

Researchers who really want to take CMS data and use it in their own analytical tools like SAS or R want to quickly download entire datasets in certain formats. Having the schema for these data sets to stay consistent and predictable makes it much easier for researcher to work with data that is released on a periodic basis without having to go through a complex import process each time. In addition, many of the serious data users were specialists, and just needed one dataset on a particular topic. We needed to define better pathways for these users to get quickly to the dataset that they need.

At the same time, the site also needs to serve more casual users who are coming to the site for quick facts, charts, or aggregated datasets, and are more likely to need to browse both across and within categories to find what they want. They also need to be able to preview data to understand what’s there (unlike hard core researchers and data scientists who tend to know the data extremely well without having to “see it”).

Based on these findings, Socrata worked with CMS to redesign the site in a way that greatly improved the experience of all users, providing direct access to full datasets that the serious data customers want, as well as enhancing the experience for users less familiar with the data or less experienced in working with data. We like to think of it as “democratizing” access to data and making sure that a data publisher is reaching the broadest possible audience with their data. This audience can, in turn, discover, access, use, and republish it in many different ways.

We redesigned the homepage to quickly allow users to understand what data is available, and then give a more tailored experience within each category of data to make sure we’re serving the wide range of users we care about. So far we’ve gotten great feedback from visitors to the new site.

What’s next for CMS and open health data more broadly?

This site is a key part of CMS’s overall effort to align with the digital government strategy, and, more importantly, to have the biggest possible positive impact they can on the public’s collective understanding of health and health care. We are at the beginning of what will likely be a revolution in the availability of health-related data, and CMS will undoubtedly continue to play a key role in publishing their very valuable data for everyone’s benefit.

We also expect an explosion of innovation around open health data that is powered by APIs. CMS is already out in front on this by enabling every dataset they publish with APIs that third party developers can use to connect directly to the data to build health-related applications and tools. As more and more open health data comes online, we will likely see entire industries created, much like NOAA has helped create a thriving industry around open climate and weather data.

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