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FCW : April 30, 2015
April 30, 2015 FCW.COM 17 Federal agencies and businesses have different needs when dealing with big data, of course, but the ability to engage in collaborative analytics with many partners on a large scale is driving much of the activity in the federal government. The NIH portal will enable researchers from disparate areas of expertise to collaborate and quickly share research and analytical models based on the molecu- lar and genome-related data from samples of the brains of 2,000 people who were afflicted with the disease, which currently has no cure. Suzana Petanceska, health science administrator in the Division of Neuroscience at NIH’s National Institute on Aging and coordinator of the Alzheimer’s portal, said: “The consortium of scientists will generate a number of predic- tive models of the disease and will prioritize a new set of targets that could be the foundation for the development of new therapies for Alzheimer’s.” NIH’s project is the biotech equivalent of an intellectual jam session between the federal government, the phar- maceutical industry, researchers in academia and sev- eral nonprofit organizations in a field that is desperate for success. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 5.3 million Americans currently suffer from the disease, and that number is expected to balloon to 13.8 million among people 65 and older by 2050. Furthermore, the annual cost of care could top $1 trillion by 2050 — 26 times more than the Department of Homeland Security’s fiscal 2015 budget request. A study published last sum- mer found that relatively few drug trials are being devel- oped for treat- ing Alzheimer’s, and 99.6 percent of those conducted from 2002 to 2012 failed. “This is a project that is tak- ing many mil- lions of features of each individual sample and trying to compile that information into a snapshot of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Lara Mangravite, director of the systems biology research group at Sage Bionetworks, the nonprofit organization that built the portal. The project is expected to generate less than 20 terabytes of data in total. That’s not a huge amount of information to analyze by big-data standards, but it’s the equivalent of twice the printed collection of the Library of Congress. “In my opinion, this is a big-data project in that it is taking a large amount of information and trying to distill it down to universal truths,” Mangravite said. Prior to the portal’s creation, the molecular datasets needed to perform analyses were scattered in repositories around the country, and the data was not annotated as it is now. As a result, the NIH-funded research was not always easily accessible to the entire research community. The relevant research is now available on Sage Bio- networks’ secure platform, which runs on cloud servers operated by Amazon. “The technological platform that we’ve built, which uses Amazon as a framework, has built within it a long series of data security protections to make sure that the data is ethically and appropriately shared,” Mangravite said. The project seeks to remove the intellectual and physical barriers that have developed over the decades between scientists in their niches of expertise so that they can work together to create a larger view of Alzheimer’s disease. “The goal is to collect many molecular measurements from human samples and apply analytical methods to reconstruct the biological processes that drive the dis- ease process and to understand how they interact with each other within and across cells, tissues and organs, rather than studying them in isolation,” Petanceska said. The project, in other words, is not some big-data proof of concept. According to Petanceska, it’s enhancing NIH’s approach to its central mission: “The intent is to make the most out of the public’s investment in research and deliver on the promise to advance public health.” An analytical engine That quest for the big picture is sweeping through NIH in other ways as well. The agency will soon launch several other big-data projects, the most prominent of which is its Precision Medicine Initiative. And similar pivots are apparent elsewhere in the federal government. To bring some cohesion to the movement, in Febru- ary the White House hired Silicon Valley data scientist DJ Patil to be deputy chief technology officer for data policy and chief data scientist at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. In a public memo released shortly after the White House announced his appointment, Patil said he’ll provide the vision for how to maximize the social return on govern- ment-generated information and create federal data policies to enable agencies to efficiently execute big-data projects and recruit talent. The 45-year-old alumnus of LinkedIn, Skype, PayPal and eBay joins a growing cadre of chief data officers at various agencies across the government. “Organizations are increasingly realizing that in order to maximize their benefit from data, they require dedicated leadership with the relevant skills,” Patil wrote. “Many corporations, local governments, federal agencies and others have already created such a role, which is usually called the chief data officer or the chief data scientist. The role of an 0430fcw_016-021.indd 17 4/8/15 2:35 PM
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May 15, 2015