OpenFDA Launches Dev Challenge to Encourage API Adoption

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced the openFDA Developer Challenge to encourage developers and researchers to use their medication adverse reactions and product labeling APIs. The openFDA APIs reflect an emerging U.S. government API strategy approach, but to date developer adoption has been muted. It is hoped that launching challenges will ignite a community of interest around the APIs.

OpenFDA has released three APIs for adverse events, labeling and enforcement reports, but it is probably better to think about them in terms of the three public health risk sources for which each API is monitoring: medications (drugs), medical devices and foods.

Example api query for Adverse Reactions API

API Documentation includes interactive queries that show how API calls are made and a visualization that can be generated from the call.

Adverse events include all occasions where a medical impact is recorded for either a drug or a medical device — for example, if a patient reports feeling dizzy after taking a particular type of medication. The product labeling API is specific to drugs; it records data on the FDA-approved labeling of all prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Enforcement reports track all FDA-instigated product recalls for drugs, devices and food.

The new challenge approach is aimed at generating a sense of curiosity in what is possible with the APIs and encouraging researchers and developers down a path of growing expertise in analyzing Big Data on public health risks from medications.

The two challenges focus on the medications data, with one challenge on adverse reactions and the other on product information. For adverse events, devs are encouraged to identify a spike in adverse events for a particular medication, normalize against other public health data sets such as emergency admissions, and then seek out an algorithm to automatically identify and justify such spikes.

Description of the openFDA challenges

For the product labeling challenge, devs can visualize black box warnings on drugs, develop a language model and then analyze whether specific classes of drugs approach consumer education in differing ways.

Once challenge participants have worked through each challenge level, they are encouraged to post their work on a subreddit, where the community is invited to comment and give feedback.

It is a novel approach to engaging with developers and researchers that falls somewhere between a certified developer program, where expertise with an API is rewarded by encouraging proficient developers to market their services to those who want to build products using an API, and a speed hack, where developers are encouraged to complete specific tasks (such as visualizing complex queries) for an API.

The openFDA Developer Portal is highly lauded by API strategists as a strong example of how government agencies can provide API documentation and engage with a developer community. Resources include:

  • A dedicated Twitter account for communicating to users
  • Interactive documentation that allows search queries to be tested on the page
  • Clear links to a developer forum on StackExchange where devs are invited to post their questions about using the APIs
  • A GitHub repository where much of the dev portal is available as open source
  • A status page documenting current uptime status of the APIs

The site clearly stipulates that it is in beta stage and is not intended for production or clinical use.

To date, the site has seen an average monthly engagement of around 20,000 website visitors, according to SimilarWeb’s website statistics.

Website visits for openFDA compared with HumanAPI and Pillbox

This is comparable to other medication- and related-health APIs and interactive data websites. For example, the U.S. National Library of Medicine's interactive data sources for medications, RxNav, and the Pillbox website that lets users search for a pill name based on a visual description (for which an API is also available) have similar monthly visit numbers. E-health data aggregator Human API also has similar monthly visits to its website, suggesting that overall, e-health is still very much in its nascent stage, with lots of opportunities to start leveraging newly released APIs.

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