A Long View, Far Away

I’ve noticed recently that articles and blogs on Application Programming Interfaces (API) for Health Information Technology are beginning to trickle out in the media, and proclamations of the API as the “key” to unlock interoperability of health systems and data are building.  And it’s about time, but it seems somewhat pale in view of the activity “across the pond”. Over here in the US, thousands of miles away from the European Union (EU), it’s easy to miss what is happening there, and it seems useful to review what the EU is doing and why.

For more than a couple of years now, the EU has been investing in the “Future Internet” and shaping how that phenomenon will eventuality work as an economic engine of the EU. Using a model that is similar to the “civic technologist” model (with code-a-thons, and challenges with cash prizes), the EU has developed an initiative that is being used to build important components of both technology infrastructure and strategic development in other sectors – including health and social policy.

FIWARE – the FI stands for “Future Internet” – is the core platform for an “open initiative aiming to create a sustainable ecosystem” on which to quickly build and deploy applications.  The initial investment in this platform comes from the European Commission’s Community Research and Development Information Service (CORDIS) and the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector.

The broad FIWARE program objective is to simplify and speed development of tools, applications, products and services to market, through the development of “Generic Enablers”, which we know and love as APIs. In this role, the EU is functioning as a very large and targeted venture capital (VC) firm, using EU direct, equity-free funding as investment capital. And the investment offer is backed up with mentoring, coaching, support, and networking to ensure the investment pays off.  

Admittedly, the ICT sector (many of them are US companies) expects to enjoy the benefit of all this development, but this shouldn’t overshadow the idea of the expected outcomes of the initiative, which is the creation of sustainable enterprises that will employ millions of people and drive economic value.  And a bonus is to have developed and tuned a model for this incubation that is spread across more than two dozen countries. 

And did I mention that all application developed must use the FIWARE Generic Enablers and the sector-specific enablers?  These incentives to create a standard set of “enablers” for handling both generic and sector-specific transactions work seamlessly with strategic application development to deliver technology needed to solve complex problems. The APIs form the basis of a massively developed set of open standards that is co-created in open fashion by stakeholders in eight different sectors – ehealth  is one of them. The VC investment targets strategic development of near-term solutions needed to advance a broader strategy across those sectors.

To achieve its strategic development objectives, the FIWARE program offers “Accelerator” efforts within each sector using investment funding specific to strategic sectoral products. In the ehealth space, there is an Accelerator effort that provides funding for applications that will speed adoption of citizen’s learning/training and shaping healthy behavior, using rich media, social networking and gaming principles.  In the Energy sector, an Accelerator effort aims to foster innovation in clean energy technology that includes smart grids, automation solutions, and energy efficiency across borders of EU member countries.

My “view from the bridge” is that the EU has interpreted the Future Internet as an important element of the future economy of the EU, and has taken steps to nurture its promise.  But more than that, the EU is using FIWARE to strategically address difficult problems in everything from food supply-chain transportation, to smart solutions using social networking in education and learning. This seems a lot like the role played by philanthropy in the US, but with coordination at an overarching level – sort of an uber-collective-impact model, if you will.

The real prize here for the US is to recognize the power of that model and how it is being implemented. How might we be able to use this concept in the US, as we’re looking for ways to engage citizens in improving their health and wellbeing? How might we use this model to develop tools and data needed to achieve knowledge necessary to design solutions to difficult and complex problems?  How could we incentivize technology that will encourage decreasing one’s environmental footprint and promote better environmental behavior?

As we think about how to “standardize the standards”, the FIWARE model appears to be an effective approach, and we at Stewards of Change agree with the idea of incentivizing standardization.  As “discussion architects” and facilitators of complex conversations, we think we can learn a thing or two from our European cousins.  It’s worth a look.


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