New, secretive data system at CDC shaping federal pandemic response

“As deadly Ebola raged in Africa and threatened the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pinpointed a problem: The agency had many sources of data on the disease but no easy way to combine them, analyze them on a single platform and share the information with partners. It was using several spreadsheets and applications for this work — a process that was ‘manual, labor-intensive, time-consuming,’ according to the agency’s request for proposals to solve the problem. It spent millions building a new platform.”

“But at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the CDC still struggled to integrate and share data. The system it had built during the Ebola crisis wasn’t up to the task. An effort to modernize all of the agency’s data collection and analysis was ongoing: One CDC official told a congressional committee in March that if the agency had modern data infrastructure, it would have detected the coronavirus ‘much, much sooner’ and would have contained it ‘further and more effectively.’”

“By April, with coronavirus cases spiking in the U.S. and officials scrambling to wrangle information about the pandemic, the CDC had a proof-of-concept for a new system to pull together all of its various data streams. But it was having trouble figuring out how to securely add users outside the agency, as well as get the funding and political backing needed to expand it, according to two sources with close knowledge of the situation.”

“So the CDC turned to outsiders for help. Information technology experts at the federal Department of Health and Human Services took control of the project. Five days later, they had a working platform, dubbed HHS Protect, with the ability to combine, search and map scores of datasets on deaths, symptoms, tests, ventilators, masks, local ordinances and more.”

“The new, multimillion-dollar data warehouse has continued to grow since then; it holds more than 200 datasets containing billions of pieces of information from both public and private sources. And now, aided by artificial intelligence, it is shaping the way the federal government addresses the pandemic, even as it remains a source of contention between quarreling health agencies and a target for transparency advocates who say it’s too secretive…” Read the full article here.

Source: New, secretive data system shaping federal pandemic response – By Liz Essley Whyte, September 22, 2020. The Center for Public Integrity.

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