Alexander Howard, who writes about open government initiatives for O'Reilly Media, has been closely following Park's work since around mid-2010. As he got settled into the role of covering Gov 2.0, as open government is sometimes called, he kept hearing Park's name come up. He had been vaguely aware of the new CTO before then as someone who had come from the private sector and was a successful entrepreneur. "That's not that common in government, necessarily," Howard said in a phone interview. "He was part of this class of people who had done interesting and important things in the private sector who were coming into government to try to use technology to make things better."
Howard argued that it was Park's connections to the private sector that allowed him to act as a catalyst between HHS and outside companies. "What he's done -- in terms of socializing it to the development community, in terms of being a bridge to them, in terms of being a spark -- cannot be overstated," he said. "It's not only his ability to reach the relevant players, but being able to explain it as someone who has been in their shoes, who knows what their concerns are, and can speak the language of someone outside of government -- I think that's a big deal."
I asked Howard to put Park's work into the larger context of open government initiatives, including ones run by non-HHS agencies. How would open data for health care compare to the industry effects of releasing NOAA and GPS data? Given that health care takes up such a large chunk of our GDP, should we expect to see much greater economic activity from the HHS projects? "With health care we're talking about hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars," he replied. "We're talking about unbelievable costs and really serious outcomes in terms of people not getting the care that they need, that they deserve. We're seeing people not being able to make informed decisions based upon really good data, for a lot of reasons. The existing privacy laws are there for good reason, but they make it difficult for organizations to draw the kind of insights from them that they need. It's created so many problems for people in health care." And because the stakes are so high, "any percentage improvement, a small one, adds up to ridiculous amounts of money" saved.
Perhaps the most ironic thing about these open data initiatives is the fact that the more successful they are, the less credit Park and HHS will receive for implementing them. These projects are designed so that they can be seamlessly integrated into already-existing tools, and the users, because they're not accessing the information directly from a government website, are often unaware of where the data is coming from. "I don't know if people really realize that when they turn on their TomTom or use their Garmin that they should be grateful to their government for having released that data, but they sure as hell are grateful for the ability to figure out where they're going," Howard said. "They're not going to recognize [Park's work] as an outcome of the government. They're not going to recognize it as something called Health 2.0. They're just going to go use the same thing they've been using for awhile and find that it has more information about the stuff that they care about."
I couldn't help but assume that Park would be fine with this. As Bryan Roberts had relayed to me, Park has never been afraid to put his ego aside to make way for an idea. On June 9 of this year, he plans to host the second annual Health Data Initiative Forum, and he told me that this time there are companies he's never even heard of competing for the coveted slots so they can showcase their tools to the world -- over 75 applied, and 45 were selected. If developers are now creating applications without needing the CTO to act as the catalyst between the private sector and government, then perhaps Park can soon make a second attempt to retire and move back to California with his wife and children so that he can spend the rest of his days simply as a father and husband.