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GCN : February 2015
GCN FEBRUARY 2015 • GCN.COM 25 BIG DATA, OPEN DATA Big data tools are also being rapidly de- veloped by the Department of Health and Human Services, a sprawling, 90,000-person enterprise that that both creates and uses data for genomics re- search, disease surveillance and epide- miology studies. “There are efforts across the depart- ment to try and leverage the data we have,” said Bryan Sivak, HHS’ chief technology officer. “At the same time a lot of the data- sets we maintain, collect, create or cu- rate can be extended to external enti- ties to help them understand aspects of the HHS ecosystem and try to improve on them, such as with CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) claims data,” he said. One such effort is the OpenFDA proj- ect, which essentially took three mas- sive Food and Drug Administration datasets through an intensive cleaning process, Sivak said, and then added an application programming interface (API) so people could access the data in machine-readable ways. OpenFDA was also linked to other data sources, so that users could access related information from the National Institutes of Health and the National Li- brary of Medicine’s MedlinePlus . The project, which launched as a beta program in June 2014, has already helped to create “a lot of different ap- plications that have the potential to re- ally help reshape that part of the (HHS) ecosystem,” Sivak said. Also within HHS, the National Insti- tutes of Health has committed to sever- al big data programs, including its Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) initiative. The program, begun in late 2013, is aimed at improving researchers’ use of biomedical data to predict who is at in- creased risk of conditions such as breast cancer and heart disease and to come up with better treatments. BD2K’s goal is to help develop a “vi- brant biomedical data science ecosys- tem,” that will include standards for dataset description, tools and methods for finding, accessing and working with Is the term ‘big data’ passé? Is it time to ditch the term “big data”? While it was useful at one point in encapsulating the idea of exploiting huge volumes of structured and unstructured data, many feel it’s past its sell-by date. On the one hand, said Bryan Sivak, chief technology officer at the HHS, it provides a useful shorthand for referring to things without having to explain it every time. But, at the same time, it “obfuscates the differences in different scenarios.” “ To me, when you start to use an overloaded term like big data, it can add some connotation that I don’t necessarily intend, or that someone else might interpret because they understand the term differently,” he said. “In general, I try to avoid using terms like big data as much as possible.” The term itself is not necessarily the problem, said Tim Hayes, senior director for customer health solutions at Creative Computing Solutions, Inc., because it helps frame the discussion. But there’s now a lot of hype around the phrase, which can mask the many challenges of moving, mapping and using data that have to be solved before the expectations generated by the hype can be met. That hype makes big data a very imprecise term for explaining what is happening in areas such as health and medicine, said Stephan Fihn, director of the VHA’s Office of Analytics and Business Intelligence. The previously hyped term in medicine was genomics, he said, and though it’s had a dramatic influence in certain areas such as cancer, in his day-to-day practice it’s so far had no real effect. “So, if you talk about big data, at the same time you also have to be very clear about where big data can help (in medicine),” he said. “I prefer to talk about high-level analytics rather than big data, and about streamlining and making more accurate what we do.” - Brian Robinson Big 0215gcn_024-027.indd 25 2/2/15 9:52 AM