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The Promise and Perils of Open Medical Data

December 06, 2016 by Sharona Hoffman

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Not long ago I visited the Personal Genome Project's website. The PGP describes its mission as “creating public genome, health, and trait data.” In the “Participant Profiles” section, I found several entries that disclosed the names of individuals along with their date of birth, sex, weight, height, blood type, race, health conditions, medications, allergies, medical procedures, and more. Other profiles did not feature names but provided all of the other details. I had no special access to this information. It is available to absolutely anyone with Internet access. The PGP is part of a trend known as “open data.” Many government and private entities have launched initiatives to compile very large data resources (also known as “big data”) and to make them available to the public. President Obama himself has endorsed open data by issuing a May 2013 executive order directing that, to the extent permitted by law, the federal government must release its data to the public in forms that make it easy to locate, access, and use.