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Agencies hope big data investments mean big payoffs

Jul. 9, 2013 - 04:10PM   |  
By NICOLE BLAKE JOHNSON   |   Comments

Agencies are under increasing pressure to invest in technologies that can mine massive amounts of data for trends and drive better decision-making.

The Office of Management and Budget’s fiscal 2014 guidance directed agencies to invest some of the government’s proposed $82 billion information technology budget in data analytics, data management tools and other projects it expects to produce savings.

The promises of better program management, faster processing of scientific data and the ability to detect and prevent fraud have prompted agencies such as the Veterans Affairs Department, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and many others to invest in commercial tools that provide such capabilities.

While OMB has been mum on how much agencies expect to spend on these commercial tools, recent contract awards show these multimillion-dollar investments are expected to pay off.

VA last month awarded Harris Corp. a four-year $37 million contract to improve the data Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) relies on to generate business intelligence reports for managers and claims processing teams, produce congressional reports, perform financial auditing and detect and prevent fraud, according to Harris. Collectively, the data and the hardware and software used to manage and store the information is known as an enterprise data warehouse and is the primary source for veterans’ benefits data.

The Harris team, which includes information technology firms Accenture Federal Services and CGI, will provide VBA with technical services for the data warehouse, including design, development, maintenance and support, Dr. Vishal Agrawal, president of Harris Healthcare Solutions, said in an interview.

Agrawal said Harris will help extract and integrate data from more than 40 independent sources. That would allow VA, for example, to query a veteran’s name and pull all relevant information on that veteran from different systems. Once inside the data warehouse, the data are verified to ensure accuracy and secured.

VA will also have access to predictive analytics that could help VBA manage the claims backlog. For example, VA could determine which regional offices are best suited to process certain types of claims, based on their staffing size and processing time, Agrawal said.

He expects managers and senior executives will perform about 10,000 different queries or searches each month using the enterprise data warehouse, which could grow to hold 100 terabytes of data in the next two to three years. For comparison, the National Archives and Records Administration said it managed 97.4 terabytes of electronic records back in 2011.

“This is a tool,” Agrawal said of VA’s enterprise data warehouse. “It’s an enabling capability … sort of like you’re giving someone a calculator or [Microsoft] Excel for the first time. Now the individual or manager can do a lot of things with it, [and] over time it will be more powerful as use cases expand.”

FDA is also relying on commercial technologies and expertise to generate, manage and analyze massive amounts of scientific data.

IT services firm DRC began work at FDA last September under a five-year contract worth up to $50 million. The company will provide computing, storage and connectivity support needed to process scientific data in six areas, including drugs, medical devices, tobacco and food safety.

A major operational change under the contract is FDA’s decision to shift support of its scientific computers from its in-house IT department to DRC, said Rajiv Bendale, a director of the DRC’s High Performance Technologies Group. One benefit has been the ability to better manage the schedule of software updates for the computers used to collect massive amounts of scientific data, separate from scheduled maintenance and support of nonscientific computers.

Updates that require these machines to be rebooted can interrupt how data is collected, and scientists can potentially lose data if their computers are shut down for maintenance and updates while in use, Bendale said. Updates are now conducted on a schedule.

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