NCI’s Digital Services Center building system architecture as it goes

(NIH photo)

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The National Cancer Institute’s Digital Services Center lacks an overarching system architecture because experienced federal staff has been hard to come by, according to Chief Information Officer Jeff Shilling.

NCI needs a synchronized plan for modernizing IT and integrating systems with the broader National Institutes of Health and Department of Health and Human Services, but none of the developers on staff have created one for an agency of its size.

Shilling began standing up the DSC four years ago to minimize NCI’s administrative burden by authorizing digital services, measuring their performance and improving business processes. But absent the right talent, gaps in the system architecture have to be addressed on the fly.

“We’re building this as we go, which is really not ideal,” Shilling said during an ATARC event in late November. “I would love to have somebody who really knows how to do all this and did it already, but I don’t.”

Absent an implementation plan, DSC can’t include language in IT contracts requiring vendors to align to its architecture or have its developers use it as a guide for storing data or building application programming interfaces. Auditing components to see if they’re adhering to the architecture or scoring them with a scorecard is obviously impossible, Shilling said.

NCI has about 15,000 desktop computers and 9,000 employees, who still use antiquated email, PDF, Excel and word document systems to move non-scientific information around.

DSC started by targeting groups who hated their systems and supplying them with minimum viable products for dashboards producing data and reports to gain leadership buy-in.

About 50 technical staffers within NCI but outside DSC needed Lean Six Sigma training to learn how to develop digital services with the hundreds of cloud products and multiple cloud environments at their disposal, Shilling said. A DevSecOps team of all NCI development staff was formed to drive system requirements, and slowly a few federal staffers were brought on to coordinate.

“I don’t have a lot of fed staff, so it’s been a struggle for me,” Shilling said. “But we’re doing it.”

Developers have ServiceNow at their disposal for low code and workflow, Palantir Foundry for data aggregation, identity and access management (IAM) from NIH, and cloud IAM, so technology isn’t the issue, Shilling said.

DSC has also been mapping business processes for several years and has a good handle on what’s going on across NCI.

“We don’t really have a solution to replace,” Shilling said. “It’s not like we have a big answer; we mostly have very old systems, even some PowerBuilder, things like that, or people are using Excel and email to share information.”

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ATARC, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), DevSecOps, digital services, Digital Services 2021, Digital Services Center, Jeff Shilling, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health (NIH)
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