Creating an 'AI ecosystem' for government health data

Gil Alterovitz argues that government data is a vital national resource and that agencies must become better stewards. 

“Data really is this vital link between government and industry and the people they serve,” Alterovitz, a Presidential Innovation Fellow who is working with the Department of Veterans Affairs, told GCN.  “When data is locked up, you basically end up losing that value.”

VA’s patient datasets, for example, are especially high-value, but gleaning big-data, public-health insights from data and systems that were created to support individual patient care is hard, he said.  There are privacy concerns, policy constraints, data hygiene questions and sheer storage challenges. 

TOP Health -- a cross-agency collaboration to encourage the development of tools that can tap into federal data -- is one attempt to address those concerns, and Alterovitz said the 14-week sprint has been quick to deliver results.   

Modeled after The Opportunity Project (TOP) -- a Census Bureau initiative that taps outside expertise to deliver data-centric government solutions -- TOP Health launched in October.  It has two goals, Alterovitz said: building a better understanding of Lyme disease treatment options and learning how to create an ecosystem for “AI-able data.” 

For the AI half of the project, the TOP Health team, drawing on resources from VA, the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies, developed three datasets dealing with clinical trials “that were structured in machine-readable format,” Alterovitz explained.  Industry partners -- including Flatiron Health, Microsoft Healthcare, Oracle, Philips (Research), Rush Medical and TrialX -- then developed AI tools to learn from that data.

In a matter of weeks, he said, the participants had working systems -- and a Feb. 7 demo day is now being planned to show off the results of the sprint.  The event, which will be held at the Commerce Department’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, “will be open to the public, open to the press,” Alterovitz said. “People are flying literally from around the world to present the work they’ve done.”

The bigger-picture goal, he said, is to “develop this honest broker and testing platform” to measure the quality of AI applications, along with “standardized agreements for how to test these protocols.”  But the project-specific results are impressive in their own right, he stressed.

“We’ve got an interesting story to tell about how a patient goes through in different ways and looks for trials as they pertain to Lyme disease,” Alterovitz said, and several of the AI tools developed “are already looking to go into production at these large companies.” 

“It’s really amazing what’s been able to be done in just a few months,” he said.

Note: This article was corrected on Dec. 13 to note that the AI ecosystem efforts did not center on Lyme disease data.  The two parts of the TOP Health project have been pursued in parallel.

About the Author

Troy K. Schneider is editor-in-chief of FCW and GCN, as well as General Manager of Public Sector 360.

Prior to joining 1105 Media in 2012, Schneider was the New America Foundation’s Director of Media & Technology, and before that was Managing Director for Electronic Publishing at the Atlantic Media Company. The founding editor of, Schneider also helped launch the political site in the mid-1990s, and worked on the earliest online efforts of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He began his career in print journalism, and has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times,, Slate, Politico, National Journal, Governing, and many of the other titles listed above.

Schneider is a graduate of Indiana University, where his emphases were journalism, business and religious studies.

Click here for previous articles by Schneider, or connect with him on Twitter: @troyschneider.


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