HHS CTO Bruce Greenstein Promotes Data and Collaboration to Address Opioid Crisis
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) CTO Bruce Greenstein wants to see the data produced by his agency surfaced, shared, and put to work to solve one of our nation’s greatest health threats, the opioid crisis.
As part of this mission, Greenstein and HHS CDO Mona Siddiqui led the charge at HHS to gather datasets related to the opioid epidemic. The data was then offered to entrepreneurs, researchers, nonprofits, and data scientists at the HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon the agency hosted in December 2017.
We spoke with Greenstein about preparing for the event, his thoughts on its impact, and his vision for the future of government internal and external data sharing. The following is a transcript of the interview.
Greenstein will be speaking at Socrata Connect this May in Austin about centralizing data, making it accessible to more people across agencies, taking action with it, then using the results of those efforts to inform future research.
What were your goals going into the code-a-thon?
The number one goal was to save lives. We’re watching unfold one of the worst public health epidemics and it’s happening right in front of our eyes. There is a lot of activity going on between government agencies, state government agencies, private organizations, community-based organizations, but the world of technology has a lot to offer and we thought we were going to corral the assets of HHS and bring together what we do well at HHS. We have some of the brightest people in the country who want to make a difference. So, that’s the background of the code-a-thon.
“Our number one goal was to save lives.” —Bruce Greenstein, HHS CTO
Second, we knew that, if done right, we would be able to show HHS internally the power of sharing data. It becomes almost cliche to talk about “breaking down the silos, sharing data, and liberating data.” But, until the data gets put together and actually used it’s just rhetoric. We wanted to really put it to work.
We were, at the same time, training HHS and program leaders how to effectively share data. Not just FTP it over or put it in some storage bin and use it. But, there were a lot of legal ramifications associated with it. Data use agreements, privacy and security concerns, cleaning it up so it can be used. And, that’s a muscle we really wanted to build within HHS so we can continue to do more activities that share data and use data it in the same way.
“…we wanted to really bring together our community, that is researchers and entrepreneurs and startups and data scientists from around the country. We want to work together on something, on our own time, in a volunteer way, to make a difference in people’s lives.” —Bruce Greenstein, HHS CTO
The third piece is that we wanted to really bring together our community, that is researchers and entrepreneurs and startups and data scientists from around the country. We want to work together on something, on our own time, in a volunteer way, to make a difference in people’s lives. And, we were impressed with how many people showed up. I wasn’t surprised. I knew that there is that much interest in this community to come together to make an impact on health and this is one great example.
That is what drove us to putting this event on.
How did you approach gathering data from your research teams for the event?
When we first started our initiative on enterprise data, that is to get agencies to start sharing more of their data and lowering the barriers to use, everyone was incredibly enthusiastic about it. But, when it came time, and Mona and I would make some visits with leaders in agencies about sharing their data, then it became more difficult. People liked the idea of data sharing but it wasn’t high on the priority list to share their data.
When we came back to them several weeks or months later, we said, “We really think your data can actually save lives in fighting the opioid epidemic.” Then people thought about a real, practical case and said, “Really, my data? You think this could actually save lives? If that’s the case, we’re really into it.”
“…for individuals, we made the notion of data sharing really concrete. And, that helps everyone understand and, again, build that muscle to be able to share more data more readily in the future across the whole department.” —Bruce Greenstein, HHS CTO
The nature of data sharing, when it had a purpose and could be applied to something that was topical and tangible, really changed. On our side, we learned a better strategy and approach to get data to be shared inside and outside the agency, as well. And, I think for individuals, we made the notion of data sharing really concrete. And, that helps everyone understand and, again, build that muscle to be able to share more data more readily in the future across the whole department.
What is your vision for how HHS can play a role in addressing the opioid crisis and other public health challenges in the future?
I think about us as something that’s in the center, where we bring people together. We have all these external people. They’re researchers, entrepreneurs, people at startups, and at the large tech companies. To some extent, some of what we did with them could be seen as a novelty — as a way to get involved, a curiosity. If we left it there, we could probably do two or three of these events a year and have this level of enthusiasm and interest. But, if it doesn’t translate into something that is executable and scalable, then it just stays that level of being a novelty and a curiosity. And, people would still like it. It would still be fun to get together, stay up late and drink coffee and eat pizza. But, that’s not really what it is about.
What makes the work that we’re doing different is that we’re trying to build these apparatuses to make things stick. That means we’re in the middle.
Talk to us more about this concept of HHS being “in the middle”?
From the private sector side, it could be a startup with two kids coming out of college and coming up with a new app or an algorithm, or the largest companies trying to figure out how they can get involved. We handle the attraction and the execution, bring people in and then figure out how to translate that into something that is going to have an impact and be able to carry forward, such as how it gets to market, how it gets used, and how it gets understood so that it doesn’t evaporate after the event.
“We have to think about data beyond its primary purpose….We’re trying to create something that goes from a report or primary purpose into action.” —Bruce Greenstein, HHS CTO
On the other side is the way government operates. Think about the data produced and how it often ends up on bookshelves. We have to think about data beyond its primary purpose. HHS and each one of the agencies, like CDC, SAMHSA, and CMS, are superb at creating this primary purpose data. Whether it is a report on immunization or quality measures, they’re done at very high quality levels. But, they’re just a report. They’re giving the state of being at that moment that is being collected or over time. We’re trying to create something that goes from a report or primary purpose into action. Something has to happen to it. It becomes connected to other data that gives better insight.
What we want to do is take that mirror and turn that back on the primary producers, these agencies within HHS and connected data across multiple agencies. Data that comes from outside sources can be connected with their data and returned back to them because they can make different decisions. Decisions that are higher quality, more insightful, more efficient, more impactful, because the data has been connected.
“We think these events can teach organizations more about their own people and their own constituencies and stakeholders and patients and members because they have the benefit of these data coming together and giving a much broader, deeper picture than just on their own.” —Bruce Greenstein, HHS CTO
And, that’s the piece that we want to use these events to do. We think these events can teach organizations more about their own people and their own constituencies and stakeholders and patients and members because they have the benefit of these data coming together and giving a much broader, deeper picture than just on their own. And, that’s the piece that we want to have — an impact that will last for generations in the way that the department operates and the way that the data is reported, consumed, and used again. We think that leads to much better outcomes all around.
What would you say to other government technology leaders?
“I think every organization within government should be subscribing to a philosophy that goes from data reporting to action.” —Bruce Greenstein, HHS CTO
I would like all the CIO and CTOs across government to see that this is within their reach. That this is not just something that is a pipe dream and it only happens in very large organizations. I think every organization within government should be subscribing to a philosophy that goes from data reporting to action. That it really is about data sharing with a strategy and a purpose, and it’s about outcomes that are scalable and executable. Those are the things that I want to really democratize across all parts of government. Then, the work that we do becomes that much more valuable.