Something historic happened in February 2011. While most of us were watching Libya plunge into civil war or admit it Season 10 of American Idol, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services quietly launched

A government website historic. Let me explain. is chock full of all sorts of healthcare data collected from a myriad of federal agencies, everything from community health indicators to provider directories to Medicare spending reports. Best of all, it's all free and instantly available to anyone who wants it.

The government's hope plea, actually  is that private citizens with an entrepreneurial bent will take the data and build something useful with it. Speaking at a healthcare conference in Nashville, Tenn., last week, HHS Chief Technology Officer Todd Park compared the health data dump to the public release of daily weather data in the 1970s and Global Positioning System data in the 1980s. Entire industries sprang up around both, and all of our lives are arguably better for it. How often do you check the weekend weather forecast from a smartphone using the built-in GPS to pinpoint your location.

Park sounded almost patriotic when challenging innovators and entrepreneurs to take the data and use it as fuel to power exciting new innovations, services, products, applications that can help consumers improve healthcare. It can help doctors and hospitals deliver better care. It can help journalists write better stories, employers promote health and wellness.

Some inventive types have already picked up the gauntlet. Doximity, a professional networking website for physicians, allows doctors to send HIPAA-compliant text messages, quickly look up contact information for healthcare facilities and refer to specialists based on a patient's location. Doximity isn't yet a year old and already nearly 5 percent of U.S. physicians have signed up.

Nancy-Ann DeParle, deputy White House chief of staff and President Obama's health czar, echoed Park's excitement at the Nashville conference, where she was the keynote speaker. DeParle said the data will be useful to states as they go about creating health insurance exchanges under healthcare reform. Remember what it was like to book flights, hotels and car rentals before Expedia and Travelocity We're on the verge of that today with buying health insurance, DeParle said.

You don't have to be a true believer in healthcare reform to understand technology could prove useful in addressing the nation's healthcare ills. That's the beauty of data: It's agnostic. But it's also worthless if the tools don't exist to capture, manage and leverage it properly.

Tom Brock, vice president of strategy and business development at RelayHealth, a subsidiary of McKesson, calls it the Internet Effect. Electronic medical records, for example, could easily produce too much information, so much so that physicians don't use them. Brock said healthcare data needs to be normalized, so that duplications and results that don't apply are automatically removed. Wouldn't it be great if physicians had a Google-like search engine allowing them to enter key aspects of a patient's condition and medical history and instantly get a list of possible diagnoses and treatments.

If that sounds a bit too futuristic, keep in mind that physicians themselves will still be the ones to make the final call. After all, Google doesn't choose a website for us; it simply spits out a list of best-guess suggestions. Whether using technology or coming up with the tools to use data effectively, in the end it still takes people. Or as Park said, You can't take data and slather it on yourself and be healed.

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