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Pillbox Opens Data to the Public

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Monday, March 25, 2013

Screenshot of pillbox dashboard available at http://pillbox.nlm.nih.gov/Pillbox is opening up government data. Government agencies, communities who need to solve challenges, members of the medical field, and public citizens can all benefit from this application. Project Manager David Hale designed Pillbox with the intent to make government data accessible and usable for the public.

What is Pillbox?

Pillbox is a web based program that allows you to visually identify unknown medications online. The process of building the tool has proven to Hale that when you bring together the expertise of the government and the needs of the public, you can create a better product than you expected.

How is Pillbox making government data accessible to the public?

We spoke with Hale to better understand how cross-collaboration between government agencies and the public can lead to success. Listen to the podcast to learn what the tool is and how it benefits you.

Link to Podcast


You’re listening to The HHS Center for New Media podcast, where new and innovative media projects are introduced, shared, and discussed.

“As a government agency, as public health agency, we are the experts in our data.  We’re the subject matter experts.”  

David Hale works at the National Library of Medicine, and is Project Manager for Pillbox. 

“But citizens and communities and health IT developers…they’re the experts in the context and how this is used at the point of care.”

Pillbox is a web based program that lets users visually identify unknown medications based on color, size, shape, imprint and score.  

“So when you click on the shape tab, you see silhouetted shapes of different types of drugs.  When you click on the size tab, there’s a little slider, an image of a pill, and a dime, and you move that slider.”

The process for creating that tool has brought together government agencies including the National Library of Medicine, Food & Drug Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

We designed that so that it was really language independent.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a native English speaker or not.  It’s really built on more iconography than it is on reading text.”

Bringing pharmacists, computer scientists, and database administrators together allowed Hale and his team to combine drug label data with generic and brand name medications.  

“It’s that partnership between the National Library of Medicine and the Food and Drug Administration that’s really benefited the project in terms of taking our own data and restructuring it in a way that can be used outside of the government.”

Hale involved citizens and communities in building the program.  He talked to emergency medical staff, physicians, and the public to gain a better understanding of how Pillbox could empower people to indentify unknown medications.  

“We believe that you need to bring those citizens and those communities into your development process prior to releasing that data.”

For Hale and his team, that’s one of their most important lessons.

“Bring them in, show them the data, talk to them about the challenges their facing, and work with them to restructure that data in a way that’s useful for them.”

The latest development of Pillbox is an API, or Application Programming Interface.  The API allows people to leverage the data sets to build their own applications.

“By doing this, we free ourselves from the platform and we really start to focus on the data, and that’s led us to this idea of driving traffic to our data, instead of driving traffic to our website…and that’s the model we’re trying to follow is to push our data as far out as we can so that it can be leveraged by really anyone who has a use for that data.”

To learn more about Pillbox, visit Pillbox.nlm.nih.gov.  If you would like to get in contact with David Hale, you can email him at david.hale@mail.nih.gov.  

You’ve been listening to The HHS Center for New Media podcast, where new and innovative media projects are introduced, shared, and discussed.  If you have a project, media tool, or idea that you want to share with other HHS employees, please contact digital@hhs.gov.  

Thanks for listening.  I’m Nicholas Garlow.

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