Federal agencies are leveraging data to promote fairness and improve essential services

As public sector organizations modernize, leaders are ensuring that sophisticated IT companies facilitate the sharing of data that advances their core missions.

Army DEVCOM’s Charneta Samms, Department of Defense’s Katie Savage, Veterans Affairs’ Jennifer Moser and RTI International’s Rebecca Boyles participated in a panel at the July 14 Women Tech Leaders event. Photo Credit: Rod Lamkey, Jr. for GovCIO Media & Research

Federal technology leaders use proprietary data to deliver critical services in ways that improve both their quality and equity of access.

Speaking at the GovCIO Media & Research Women Tech Leaders event, government and industry representatives discussed how public sector organizations are leveraging their modernized IT enterprises to increase the overall impact of their main missions and their new programs.

Particular emphasis was placed on health-focused organizations, whose experience in health care delivery informs research programs that improve care delivery and patient outcomes.

Organizations like the Defense Health Agency maintain large repositories of data and tissue samples that have tremendous potential to be applied to health care research programs, as these agencies begin to invest in the type of data processing and capabilities secure information sharing necessary to galvanize these assets.

“We have this photo from our archives that really looks like the last scene and Raiders of the Lost Art, just these giant boxes piled up in a basement. As far as democratizing data goes – it doesn’t do any good for nobody like that. And we can learn a lot by digitizing that and using AI and machine learning. The next step is to see what business models we can share that with – research centers, universities – and make it public accessible to people around the world who can look at the data and do something with it, said Deputy Chief of the Digital Department of Defense and Artificial Intelligence Officer Katie Savage.

Similar initiatives are underway across the Department of Veterans Affairs which uses the agency’s health care information and in-house expertise to support research programs designed to advance both diagnosis and care for a range of health conditions. This has been a particular focus of the Million Veteran program which analyzes large amounts of genomic data, making results and anonymized statistical overlays available both within VA and to partner research organizations.

“The Million Veteran program is such a great resource of data, and we want this data to work for veterans. This is also why we want more people outside of the VA to be able to use it,” said the Dr. Jennifer Moser, Associate Director of Science Programs for the VA’s Million Veteran Program All of our summary statistics and summary data from MVP projects available on NIH [database of genotypes and phenotypes]. It’s not identifiable or individual-level data, it’s summary data, but it can be used by almost anyone.”

This emphasis on better exploiting proprietary information has led federal agencies to work on data-sharing programs themselves, particularly to improve their security and efficiency. These initiatives have only received increased support and attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, when remote access has become a critical part of business continuity.

“We really try to make sure that we give access to the right data to the right people at the right time. And then also, we have to work with our coalition partners and our service partners and things like that. So we have to share data between platforms. So it’s really tough, but COVID has actually kind of opened the window for that and made us more aware of how we can transition to new platforms and new data solutions that allow us to do that more efficiently said Charneta Samms, CTO at Army DEVCOM.

These data sharing and processing efforts, particularly those where large institutions make their datasets available to outside partners, have largely democratized the field of research and enabled smaller organizations with particular expertise but lacking heavy investments to make their own contributions.

“In research, there’s traditionally been a kind of haves and have-nots story when you’re talking about computational biology and what’s possible,” said Rebecca Boyles, director of the Center for Data Modernization Solutions at RTI International. “But by making this kind of data understandable – which is a big deal – and accessible through the cloud, no matter what kind of university you come from or what supercomputing resources you have at your institution.”

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