HHS chief data officer targets internal data sharing challenges

CoLab director Will Yang kicks off demo day. (HHS IDEA Lab)

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Imagine you’re a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data scientist doing research on food safety using data sets on foodborne illness. Naturally, you also want to include some Food and Drug Administration data in your work. While the data sets have different owners, both FDA and CDC are under the Department of Health and Human Services umbrella, so it should be easy to share, right?

Well, not exactly.

HHS doesn’t currently have a common practice for the drafting of data sharing agreements. But if Chief Data Officer Mona Siddiqui gets her way, this will change.

Siddiqui used her time at the demo day for the inaugural cohort of HHS’ Data Science CoLab, a new data science training program at the agency, to talk about her desire to streamline agency data sharing agreements. “Dr. Siddiqui and her team are actively engaging with data stewards across the department to better understand the barriers to data sharing and identify promising best practices already taking place at the Department,” HHS told FedScoop in a statement. The idea is to use these best practices to develop a sort of agencywide data sharing protocol.

The project is still in its early stages, but it seemed to resonate with agency data users in the room. During a breakout session of discussion, one group of HHS practitioners expressed their frustration with the agency’s disparate data.

The challenge starts, some said, with simply knowing what data other departments have. But let’s say you know exactly what data set you want to use — even then it is not smooth sailing. You’ve got to figure out who the data owner is, contact that person and then, if they agree to share, figure out how to draft a data sharing agreement from scratch. Often, this process is just too much to overcome.

“Honestly, I don’t even try” to get data not already housed in my department, one HHS employee said. Even if all the steps go according to plan it just takes too long, he continued. By the time you get your hands on the data, chances are you’ve moved on to a new project.

And this isn’t a challenge unique to the CoLab group — in 2014, the Children’s Bureau posted a YouTube video that explores “some common barriers to data sharing” and strategies for overcoming these barriers. “Sometimes just the thought of trying to share data across agencies and programs can be overwhelming,” the text accompanying the video begins.

But there’s a hopeful note for these researchers in Siddiqui’s goals — her initiative “has full leadership support at the Department,” HHS told FedScoop.

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Department of Health and Human Services, HHS Data Science CoLab, HHS IDEA lab, Mona Siddiqui
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