My Visit to the White House

Sep 13, 2011, 12:00 PM, Posted by David Van Sickle

David Van Sickle, Ph.D., is a former epidemic intelligence service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a 2006 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

This past June, I had the honor of being named one of 17 “Champions of Change” by the White House, in recognition of my work marrying emerging technologies to health care.

According to, “The Obama administration established the Champions of Change award to recognize and encourage ‘everyday heroes’ working to better their communities through hard work and creative solutions.” Many of these folks – such as awardee Todd Park, chief technology officer at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – now occupy key roles in government where they are sparking new companies and revolutionizing industrial ecosystems in part by using whole new approaches to data.

As readers of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Human Capital Web site may recall, my work to develop a GPS-enabled asthma inhaler caught the attention of the Administration early last year, and I was invited to make a presentation at a Community Health Data Forum sponsored by HHS. The forum was an outgrowth of President Obama’s Community Health Data Initiative, which is focused on making HHS health data available so that software developers and others can put it to innovative and constructive use.

The idea behind the inhaler is to capture valuable data about asthma from daily life, by putting GPS technology to work tracking precisely when and where patients use their inhalers. That’s useful information to patients, because it means they can provide their physicians with the kinds of specifics that generally don’t make it into pen-and-paper logs – often because patients forget to keep track and instead fill them out days or weeks later, in the parking lot of their doctors’ offices, for example! But the device also has public health implications, because when we can identify patterns in asthma incidents, we can sometimes identify and then do something about environmental factors that cause them.

Asthmapolis, the company I formed to bring this to market, is gearing up to manufacture the first commercial version of the sensor and is busy hiring. We're up to six employees now and looking to hire two or three more. Our staff will help educate users and public health officials on the use of the product, design marketing materials, write related apps and more. It’s an exciting time in the life of the company, and it’s been an education moving along the path from idea to prototype to device and eventually to a marketable product. This fall we will launch in major health systems in three states.

In this latest trip to Washington, the 16 other individuals and organizations that were similarly honored had the chance to meet with top technology leaders from The White House, including Aneesh Chopra (Chief Technology Officer) and Vivek Kundra (Chief Information Officer).

The day started with a fiery session by Chopra, who said, provocatively, that he thinks now is the best time in history to innovate. A panel discussion with industry experts, including entrepreneur and author Eric Ries, Proctor & Gamble Chief Technology Officer Bruce Brown, and McKinsey Global Institute Director James Manyika, provided an encouraging perspective on the value of data in innovation, and touched on the role data are playing in the development of new, lean projects that either grow into companies, or that take root within existing companies.

Kundra’s remarks highlighted the development and amazing growth of, the federal government online platform that has grown in two years from a sparse collection of 47 datasets to a rich resource with more than 390,000 datasets. He outlined the future of the platform, promising more machine-readable data, a tool for creating exportable data visualizations, and easier mechanisms for agencies to publish data.

The session closed with a lecture by Cass Sunstein, the Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, an office that plays a key role in the federal regulatory process. Sunstein underscored the essential role of civic engagement in the sustainability and health of the democracy, telling the story about Benjamin Franklin’s response when asked about the outcome of the 1787 Constitutional Convention – the one that met to replace the Articles of Confederation with the United States Constitution we’ve all come to revere. As the story goes, as Franklin was leaving Independence Hall in Philadelphia, he was asked by a passerby, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

Centuries later, my fellow awardees – from Zonability, a company that makes zoning laws easily accessed online, to a team that independently redesigned the Federal Register to make it more user-friendly – relentlessly apply their ingenuity, skills and energy to solve specific problems, strengthen our democracy, and improve our daily life. I’m proud to have been among them.

For a rundown of the projects as well as video interviews with the developers, see the August issue of Government Technology.

Van Sickle is also the co-author of “Understanding Socioeconomic and Racial Differences in Adult Lung Function,” published recently in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.