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OpenFDA Backstory: Breaking The Paperwork Backlog

The startup Captricity uses a combination of crowdsourcing and OCR to digitize mountains of paper records, particularly for government agencies and healthcare.

Crowdfunding The Next Healthcare Hit
Crowdfunding The Next Healthcare Hit
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Kuang Chen can't claim credit for the OpenFDA cloud API announced this week, but his company, Captricity, played a role in making it more interesting.

"The thing about an open data set is, if it's not totally complete, it's not as useful," the Captricity CEO and founder said in an interview. To make it complete, the FDA needed to be able to provide structured access to data, regardless of whether it was submitted online in a structured format such as XML.

The backlog of paper records and scanned forms is a common problem in government and healthcare, Chen said, particularly where IT budgets are tight. The FDA can put demands on drug companies to submit data online, but the adverse drug event reporting database that OpenFDA is starting with includes data from sources at all economic levels and degrees of technical sophistication, including physicians and physician assistants.

Captricity also contributed to a recent project digitizing campaign finance reports for the state of Georgia.

[Wanted: Your health data. Read Mobile Health Devices: Public Health Trend Spotters?]

OpenFDA is one of several open data initiatives announced this week by branches of the US Department of Health and Human Services, including updated and expanded Medicaid data. The innovative cloud service, which makes widely available data previously accessible only to select contractors, is already attracting the attention of mobile app and other developers.

The first OpenFDA service provides access to reports of adverse drug interactions. Roughly 10% of these are submitted on paper or by fax or scanned image, meaning they required manual processing. Captricity's role was to whittle down the backlog of those reports using a combination of crowdsourced human intelligence and optical character recognition (OCR) software. What the FDA gets back is structured data, organized into the XML standard for adverse event reporting.

FDA chief health informatics officer Taha Kass-Hout was impressed enough to participate in a marketing case study for Captricity. He attested that the service "allows us to upload scans of reports received via mail, fax or PDF and get back structured, machine-readable data that is remarkably accurate, even for free-form handwriting."

Chen said OCR alone is not sufficient to produce those results, particularly for data scribbled on to a form by hand. Employing Amazon Mechanical Turk, a marketplace for farming out small "human intelligence tasks" to online workers at a low cost, Captricity is able to quality check OCR results

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David F. Carr oversees InformationWeek's coverage of government and healthcare IT. He previously led coverage of social business and education technologies and continues to contribute in those areas. He is the editor of Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, Oct. 2013) and ... View Full Bio

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David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
6/6/2014 | 1:33:15 PM
Do you have a paperwork backlog?
Curious how many of you have a paperwork backlog you need to conquer. How are you addressing it? Have you found effective alternatives to the approach described here?
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