DHS biosurveillance center not getting enough data, GAO says

The National Biosurveillance Integration Center lacks data and personnel because collaboration is lagging

The Homeland Security Department’s effort to spearhead federal information-sharing for biosurveillance has encountered several obstacles that are preventing it from collecting the data it needs, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

DHS’ National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC) was created to collect and analyze biological data from federal agencies and public sources. The goal is early detection and warning of major biological events, including bioweapon attacks, pandemic illness outbreaks and major threats to animals, plants and the environment.

The NBIC has worked to acquire the data from federal partners, establish governance and build an information technology inifrastructure for data collection, analysis and communication. But to date, it has not received the data or the personnel it needs and has had difficulties in setting up the collaborations, GAO said in its Dec. 18 report.

The NBIC is not receiving critical data for its early detection mission, the GAO wrote, and currently is using only data available to the public on the Internet because it has not been successful obtaining data from federal partners. Only two of 11 partner agencies have assigned personnel to help support the center.

GAO said the center has not successfully employed collaborative practices to obtain cooperation from the other federal agencies. “In interviews with partner agencies, GAO encountered widespread confusion, uncertainty, and skepticism around the value of participation in the interagency community, as well as the mission and purpose of NBIC within that community,” the report stated. “Further, interviews with agency officials demonstrated a lack of clarity procedures for operating across agency boundaries.”

The report recommends setting up and carrying out key practices to overcome those barriers, including developing a clear rationale for a common outcome, establishing joint strategies and procedures, identifying resources, defining roles and responsibilities, and creating mechanisms to monitor progress.

DHS officials agreed with the recommendations.

In related news, the NBIC in September advertised for the services of an aggregator that could combine content into a data feed.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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