OpenFDA: Innovative Initiative Opens Door to Wealth of FDA’s Publicly Available Data

By: Taha A. Kass-Hout, M.D., M.S.

Today, I am pleased to announce the launch of openFDA, a new initiative from our Office of Informatics and Technology Innovation (OITI). OpenFDA is specifically designed to make it easier for web developers, researchers, and the public to access and use the many large, important, health data sets collected by the agency.

Taha Kass-HoutThese publicly available data sets, once successfully integrated and analyzed, can provide knowledge and insights that cannot be gained from any other single source.

Consider the 3 million plus reports of drug adverse reactions or medication errors submitted to FAERS, the FDA Adverse Event Reporting System (previously AERS), since 2004.

Researchers, scientists, software developers, and other technically-focused individuals in both the private and public sectors have always been invited to mine that publicly available data set – and others – to educate consumers, which in turn can further our regulatory or scientific missions, and ultimately, save lives.

But obtaining this information hasn’t always been easy.

In the past, these vast datasets could be difficult for industry to access and to use.  Pharmaceutical companies, for example, send hundreds of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to FDA every year because that has been one of the ways they could get this data. Other methods called for downloading large amounts of files encoded in a variety of formats or not fully documented, or using a website to point-and-click and browse through a database – all slow and labor-intensive processes.

openFDA logoOpenFDA will make our publicly available data accessible in a structured, computer-readable format. It provides a “search-based” Application Programming Interface – the set of requirements that govern how one software application can talk to another – that makes it possible to find both structured and unstructured content online.

Software developers can now build their own applications (such as a mobile phone app or an interactive website) that can quickly search, query or pull massive amounts of public information instantaneously and directly from FDA datasets in real time on an “as-needed” basis. Additionally, with this approach, applications can be built on one common platform that is free and open to use. Publicly available data provided through openFDA are in the public domain with a CC0 Public Domain Dedication.

Drug adverse events is the first dataset – with reports submitted from 2004 through 2013 available now.

Using this data, a mobile developer could create a search app for a smart phone, for example, which a consumer could then use to determine whether anyone else has experienced the same adverse event they did after taking a certain drug.

As we focus on making existing public data more easily accessible, and providing appropriate documentation and examples to developers, it’s important to note that we will not release any data that could be used to identify individuals or reveal other private information.

OpenFDA uses cutting-edge technologies deployed on FDA’s new Public Cloud Computing infrastructure enabled by OITI, and will serve as a pilot for how FDA can interact internally and with external stakeholders, spur innovation, and develop or use novel applications securely and efficiently. As we move forward with the early stages of openFDA, we will be listening closely to the public, researchers, industry and all other users for their feedback on how to make openFDA even more useful in promoting and protecting the public health.

Taha A. Kass-Hout, M.D., M.S., is FDA’s Chief Health Informatics Officer and Director of FDA’s Office of Informatics and Technology Innovation.