HHS joins federal info-sharing efforts
HHS Deputy CIO John Teeter spoke about HHS involvement at panel today
The Health and Human Services Department recently joined a federal information-sharing system that already includes law enforcement, intelligence, homeland security and diplomatic officials, a HHS official said today at a forum sponsored by AFCEA-Bethesda.
HHS added a representative to the steering committee for the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM), said John Teeter, deputy CIO at HHS. NIEM is a federal data model of standards, vocabularies and processes for sharing data across domains.
Although HHS has been involved for many years in supporting federal counterterrorism efforts, especially for bioterrorism and pandemic influenza surveillance, it is becoming more active in collaborating with the Homeland Security and Justice departments, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), and state and local agencies on common standards for sharing data more broadly, Teeter said.
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HHS decided to support the efforts that already exist with the ongoing NIEM development, Teeter noted, adding: "Do we want to ‘boil the ocean’? No, we don’t. NIEM is already being shared by states and federal agencies.” The goal of HHS in NIEM is to standardize the formats of messages and important health data so they can be easily shared with multiple partners, and so data from those partners can be shared with HHS, he said.
HHS also has been developing its own information-sharing networks and standards for personal health information and public health data. It developed the Nationwide Health Information Network as a set of protocols for secure data exchange.
The next step is to develop more connections in NIEM so HHS can get more input on events or situations that might affect public health — such as an environmental spill or radioactivity leak — and to take advantage of information-sharing networks that already exist.
“We are actively trying to build out an architecture in the health domain,” Teeter said. “We are all so focused on our individual missions, and we don’t leverage enough.”
The obstacles to sharing are not technical but rather “politics, policies and perceptions,” he added. In health care, one of the misperceptions of sharing is the idea that private health information may be breached.
For example, some people have the misperception that personal health information cannot be secured, Teeter said. There is some risk, though the risk may be exaggerated, he added.
Similar privacy and security concerns affect federal information sharing more broadly. David Burns, deputy information sharing executive at ODNI, said he spends most of his time dealing with policy and strategy issues rather than solving technical problems.
“Many of the technical problems [with information sharing] have been solved,” Burns said. “The tools are available, but they are not being used because of laws or policies. We are trying to put together program planning for whoever needs access for what purpose.”
Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.