Medicinal drugs can be beneficial, even lifesaving — but not, always, in combination with each other. Putting two and two together in the human body can cause a million different unexpected, unintended, downright harmful side effects. Until now, those “adverse interactions” have been difficult to research, sort through, and track. But today, the FDA is launching a new initiative designed to let members of the public have access to, and make sense of, all the data.
The OpenFDA project is starting with nearly a decade’s worth of information, covering reported drug interactions and errors from 2004 through 2013. It’s no small amount of data; there are about 3.6 million adverse interaction reports in there from those nine years.
Instead, the FDA has just launched an API that taps into all this data. An API (application programming interface) is the thing that lets people make a program that talks to someone else’s program, basically. So, for example, game designers can use the an API provided by Facebook to design apps for the social site.
That means software developers can now build their own tools to access the FDA data through this API, and to present it in different ways — everything from a table of data to a fully interactive map.
Making the data available as a large, sprawling set is more useful to anyone who needs or wants to spot patterns: what kind of mistakes are being made? By who? Where? What interactions happen most commonly, that more medical professionals and consumers should be educated about? Which are most rare, and therefore easy to miss? Public health researchers, analysts, medical professionals, drug companies, health insurance companies, and anyone else with the time and inclination can now call on the drug interaction API with their own programs to dig into the data looking for the information they need.
They FDA does plan to expand their open data initiative, they added in their announcement, but needed to start somewhere and so the pilot program deals with the millions of adverse drug interactions that were previously only accessible “through difficult to use reports or Freedom of Information Act requests,” not with a few clicks of the mouse.