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Making a difference in how people find health information, today and into the future.

Glad You Asked: Digital Strategy Basics

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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Mobile devices, social media, and the storage options offered by cloud computing has completely changed how we work with information. The Federal Government is working to meet these new expectations by delivering information and services anytime, anywhere and on any device. Many of you have left questions and comments on this site asking how we’re doing this. We’d like to answer a few of those questions here, now.

Question: What is the HHS Digital Strategy, exactly?

Response: The HHS Digital Strategy aims to “free the data” by improving the public’s ability to get information, whenever and however they need it. This effort encompasses all of the traditional topic-specific ‘.gov’ websites. It also includes all forms of data sharing, communication, social media, and third party application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow for mashups Exit Disclaimer—all the while recognizing the growing usage of smart phones and tablets for the flow information. Instead of focusing on processes to improve information technology (IT), the Digital Strategy focuses on 3 outcomes:

  1. Enable the American people and an increasingly mobile federal workforce to access information and services anywhere, anytime, on any device.
  2. Deliver digital services to the American people smartly, securely, and affordably.
  3. Unlock the power of government data to spur innovation.

The overarching goal is to present information for consumers in a way that is fully accessible to them, written in plain language, and brought together in ONE portal.

A Google search on a health topic yields thousands of hits—each one of which can only present a piece of the total picture. Right now the public is playing Where’s Waldo? with health information. Our end goal is to create comprehensive topic-based websites that are available in traditional and mobile formats. These sites will offer pertinent, reliable, and accurate information in one place.

Question: Can you give me some examples?

Response: One of the great success stories is flu.gov which deals strictly with influenza, the flu virus. When H1N1 hit and eventually turned into a pandemic, flu.gov was already up and running. We had all the information in one convenient place when the evening news, online news sites, and newspapers began covering the flu and its spread extensively. The content was there and the traffic to the site was extraordinary. Flu.gov proved its worth at this time because the site served as a central source for flu-related information. This showed us how important the topic-based approach that spawned the site was.

Another example is foodsafety.gov. This cooperative website brings together food safety information, recalls, and alerts across HHS, USDA, and FDA all in one convenient place. Accessible from a smart phone or tablet, you can get the latest updates on pertinent food safety issues such as the recent salmonella outbreak in peanut butter whenever you need it.

Question: What’s the big deal?  Why is the Government Digital Strategy so hard to implement?

Response: It’s a complicated process. For example, we’re working on launching a topic specific website on tobacco by the end of the year. We came up with an inventory of 1,100 websites all related to smoking: how-to quit, the health effects of smoking, how-to not start smoking. You name it, it’s out there. Not only is there countless information, it also spans a number of major divisions across the federal government. To scan and pull all that information into one platform is a major undertaking requiring the coordinated efforts of many stakeholders on the project.

Question: How will this effect health related research?

Response: With this initiative we take data and research that we have and make it publically available in a format that is not only readable but usable by data and technology innovators for relevant mashups. Using an application programming interface (API), the data can be accessed, applied to population or mapping tables, and presented to create new relevant information or create new opportunities for further research. Making the data available for developers, researchers, and organizations pushes innovation forward and helps to highlight gaps in research.

Question: What are the benefits?

Response: Specifically valuable to us internally is that we can weed out inconsistencies amongst the information scattered across the internet. We find that for whatever reason, some websites have different information. It may be that the content was written at different times and hasn’t been updated to match the knowledge that is available now. Finding inconsistent information can be frustrating, misleading, and potentially health-threatening for the consumer. The HHS Digital Strategy seeks to synthesize all the information and deliver the right information to the consumer in a consistent manner.

We also reach out to the public to give us feedback on how to improve the Government Digital Strategy and ensure we’re reaching our intended goals. We have a very interactive blog and pursue an active dialogue on the comments we receive.

Question: What are the next steps?

Response: We’ve had a great start to this initiative and will continue to engage consumers—utilizing their opinions and feedback to reach our end goals.

I like to use a supermarket model to explain the current state of affairs of information on the web. When you go into a supermarket you can expect that the groceries will be organized by the product, regardless of the manufacturer.  If you’re looking for cereal, you know that one aisle will have all the cereal—it doesn’t matter if it’s made by Kellogg or General Mills, or whomever. Right now it’s like a trailer of grocery cargo dumped all the boxes of food on the highway and we have to sort through it ourselves. People shouldn’t need to know who owns the information on tobacco, food safety, the flu, bullying, or cancer. That information should be grouped together in one reliable place and easily accessible on a desktop, laptop, tablet, or smart phone. We’re working to make that possible.

Still have question about the Digital Strategy? Comment below and tell us what you think.

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