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Open data, innovation and procurement


There has been an awful lot in the news recently about the plans by the NHS to collect and consolidate patient data.  The project, called care.data, has become embroiled in the mother of all debates, as a seemingly endless supply of people have lined up to criticize the project for its supposed trampling of patient privacy and so on.  As an example in how to ‘sell’ the merits of better data, it’s fair to say it hasn’t been the best.

Maybe lessons could have been learned from the City of Chicago.  They have much in common with public bodies throughout the world.  Their procurement processes are byzantine and complicated to the point that they make improving services often very difficult indeed.  As you can no doubt imagine, when you increase the number of hoops people have to go through in order to contribute to a project, you’re limiting the types of people that get involved.

As a result therefore, it’s often not the best supplier that wins the contract, but rather the supplier who is best equipped to unpick the knots of the procurement process, which leaves services often some way behind that available in the rapidly evolving private sectors.

So how does this apply to the difficulties the NHS is experiencing?  Well, you see, salvation for Chicago has come courtesy of opening up their data.  Over the last three years, outsiders have had access to an increasing amount of public data, and they’ve been using that data to build some pretty cool stuff.

Things like Was My Car Towed, 2nd City Zoning and CrimeAround.us were all built by outside people.  They didn’t have to go through a labyrinthine procurement process.  They didn’t need to be large organizations equipped with the kind of back office to handle such bureaucracy.  By and large they were built by a few people, often in a matter of days, and all for no money.

It’s maybe worth letting that sink in a little and appreciate what a fundamental difference that represents to how innovation occurs.  Given the opportunity, there are no doubt many of talented people who would love to apply their talents at improving how healthcare is delivered in Britain.

With the public perception of this initiative seemingly tainted irreversibly, it is hard to escape the feeling that it was all a rather wasted opportunity.

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