Innovator's Dilemma: How SF's Rajiv Bhatia Pioneered Open Health Data And Ruffled Feathers

Sam Roudman | TechPresident | February 6, 2014

During his seventeen-year tenure at San Francisco’s Department of Public Health (DPH), Dr. Rajiv Bhatia excelled. By measuring the health impacts of proposed laws and policies, he created powerful tools to advocate on behalf of the disadvantaged. Gentrification is innately distasteful to many: Bhatia showed how it could be harmful. His work contributed to today’s civic obsession with open data and transparency before those words began to buzz in the ears of bureaucrats, civic hackers and entrepreneurs. He looked at data politically, and searched for political fights to deploy it in. At least he did until June of last year.

“One day I came back from vacation and I found myself turned into a cockroach,” says Bhatia, who was the department's environmental health director. Without warning, he was put on administrative leave. An anonymous and ultimately meritless whistleblower complaint was lodged against him. After a month of leave he was brought back, but essentially stripped of power, removed from the projects he was leading, and barred from contacting the staff supporting his work. The city recently settled with him for $155,000.

“So, this was a very expensive and complicated way of firing me.”

These days, open data is touted as a major opportunity for cities and entrepreneurs. A recent report by McKinsey suggested open data could be the key to unlocking a three trillion dollar market. What’s often missing from this formulation is the notion that data might be used to accomplish social and political goals as well; that government data might not just be used in a private company's app to report a pothole (a laudable goal), but that it might be used to improve the health and safety of public housing residents.