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Data Devotee

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Author and journalist Fred Trotter wins the prestigious Data Liberator Award

by Carlos Anchondo ’14

Fred Trotter ’99 believes there are two perspectives on health care patient data. One outlook is to view patient data like diamonds, coal, or oil, where resource access is restricted and owners maximize profits from these resources. A second outlook is view data like air or water, where everyone is an owner and deserves data access.

Trotter shares the latter perspective and says that data must be protected so that it can be shared safely. He expressed this view in his acceptance speech as the fourth annual recipient of the Data Liberator Award at the seventh Health Datapalooza conference. Trotter received the award for his impact on the health care data movement, where he was worked to make the health care industry more transparent.

“Health care data is more valuable to society in the open,” Trotter says. “We need to convince every hospital, practice, pharmacy, and state, local, and foreign government that they should be implementing the same standards for openness that are now standard for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Health Service.”

Described by the Data Liberator Award selection committee as “an avid force for change in health care,” Trotter is widely known for the DocGraph data set, which shows how doctors, hospitals, labs, and health care providers work together to treat Medicare patients. This data set describes how the U.S. health care system delivers patient care. He calls the data a “teaming” set because it illustrates when providers treat the same group of patients within the same time frame. In order to release the data set, Trotter made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to HHS.

Replications of Trotter’s FOIA request became so popular that eventually the entire set was made public on the Internet. Trotter has made his career as a data journalist largely, he says, by “convincing someone to release data, usually through FOIA requests.” At Datapalooza, Trotter released a new data set that revealed who doctors are working with and what procedures those doctors were referring. The data set also shows how labs and imaging is ordered by physicians. Trotter even arranged for every conference attendee to receive a flash drive with that data set.

Additionally, Trotter is the co-author of Hacking Healthcare: A Guide to Standards, Workflows, and Meaningful Use, first published in 2013 by O’Reilly Media. The book prepares information technologists for a changing U.S. health care system and its use of electronic health records. As a Trinity student, Trotter earned a B.S. in computer science and a B.A. in psychology. He says that psychology professor Paula Hertel introduced him to “formal thinking about discourse and writing” and he credits his classes as great preparation for his writing career.

“Dr. Hertel taught me that sometimes the person who gets the A is not actually learning the most,” Trotter says. “In some cases, struggling is a critical part of learning. The emphasis on writing in Dr. Hertel’s class and at Trinity has ended up being one of the most valuable parts of my education, and I am deeply grateful.”

Downplaying his success as a journalist, Trotter says he is a slightly above-average programmer and that it is his “capacity to be an extroverted thinker” and his ability to write well and explain himself clearly that has set him apart in his industry. He regards the Data Liberator Award as a major highlight in his career in a time where he views his work in data journalism as analogous to working in digital civil rights.

Fervent in his mission, Trotter vows to fight against a society where artificial intelligence is exploited to make certain players wealthier and instead views AI as a tool to serve humanity.

Find Fred on Twitter at @fredtrotter or at fred [at] careset.com.

Carlos Anchondo is a writer and editor for University Marketing and Communications. He is a 2014 graduate of Trinity and can be found at @cjanchondo or at canchond [at] trinity.edu.