Achieving our Mission through Enhanced IT Service Delivery

By: Walter S. Harris, M.B.A, P.M.P.

At its core, FDA is an information- and process-driven organization. Day-in and day-out, FDA’s experts make thousands of weighty and complex decisions by evaluating, and allowing access to, life-sustaining, life-enhancing and life-saving products. This is done using a vast amount of sophisticated and reliable data. And it is done while continuously engaging with consumers, patient representatives, industry, academia and other government agencies.

Walter HarrisSince the establishment of the Office of Information Management and Technology (OIMT) seven months ago, we have fundamentally changed how we support the Agency’s mission — primarily, to increase transparency, and better align functions and resources to achieve more efficient and improved customer support and services. To further these objectives, we have taken the following steps to help transform our service to our internal and external stakeholders.

  • Reorganized the Office of Information Management into a more stable structure that is focused on our customers and the delivery of services. This new IT structure includes robust leadership, increased scientific capability and closer attention to IT’s business and customer needs, including a new IT audit and compliance program.
  • Hired the first Chief Health Informatics Officer (CHIO), Taha Kass-Hout, MD, M.S., to promote and develop innovative enterprise solutions and identify opportunities for transparency and availability of FDA’s public health data to our consumers while ensuring accountability and privacy. With the launch of openFDA, we have demonstrated our ability to respond quickly and accurately to emerging scientific, technological and economic trends.
  • Requested that the CIO Council, FDA’s IT governance board with representation across all of its Centers, focus on opportunities to consolidate IT solutions into capabilities that benefit the agency, eliminating duplication of efforts and creating possibilities for reinvestment.
  • Creating an IT service cost-allocation model that will include a service catalog and identification of cost drivers for IT services.
  • Restructuring our IT portfolio to a service based portfolio model that is in alignment with our cost allocation model.

OIMT, together with IT leaders in the Centers, will transform our IT operation to minimize redundancies, streamline IT, and enhance customer service while lowering IT costs to the agency. We continue to seek opportunities to  identify and tackle issues, improve communications across functional lines, and more fully capitalize on the expertise of our talented staff.

These are exciting endeavors and I am proud of the efforts IT leaders across the FDA have taken to focus on customer service. With a renewed emphasis on service delivery to enable mission outcomes, we are better able to use resources in a manner that will achieve greater efficiency, improve support across the FDA, and provide results that benefit the public health.

Walter S. Harris, M.B.A, P.M.P., is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Operations

OpenFDA Provides Ready Access to Recall Data

By: Taha A. Kass-Hout, M.D., M.S.

Every year, hundreds of human and animal foods, drugs, and medical devices are recalled from the market by manufacturers. These products may be labeled incorrectly or might pose health or safety issues. Most recalls are voluntary; in some cases they may be ordered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Recalls are reported to the FDA, and compiled into its Recall Enterprise System, or RES. Every week, the FDA releases an enforcement report that catalogues these recalls. And now, for the first time, there is an Application Programming Interface (API) that offers developers and researchers direct access to all of the drug, device, and food enforcement reports, dating back to 2004.

Taha Kass-HoutThe recalls in this dataset provide an illuminating window into both the safety of individual products and the safety of the marketplace at large. Recent reports have included such recalls as certain food products (for not containing the vitamins listed on the label), a soba noodle salad (for containing unlisted soy ingredients), and a pain reliever  (for not following laboratory testing requirements).

At present, FDA provides various ways to access the recalls data, including an RSS feed, a Flickr stream, and a search interface. This new API supplements these sources as the first, and one-call, access to the entire enforcements archive. The hope is that this API will be useful to developers and researchers interested in FDA enforcement actions. Developers can now call into the API to add recalls data to mobile apps or consumer websites. And researchers could use the API to study individual manufacturers, product categories, or specific foods or drugs.

The recalls database is the second dataset to be released on openFDA. Since openFDA debuted on June 2, 2014, the website has generated considerable interest. In the past five weeks, the site has had 34,000 sessions (two-thirds are new sessions) from 26,000 unique visitors worldwide that generated 80,000 page views.

The adverse events API has been accessed by 18,000 Internet connected devices, with nearly 2.4 million API calls since the launch.  At least one new website, http://www.researchae.com, has been created to allow any user to submit queries on the adverse events data, and several other companies are integrating the data into their products and services. It is also being accessed by researchers inside and outside FDA and by journalists as well.

More APIs will follow in the weeks ahead. OpenFDA is taking an agile (development in small chunks of iterations) approach in the creation and release of these APIs, with the objective of getting feedback from developers and researchers (as well as from industry and the public) at the GitHub and StackExchange forums that serve our project. We plan to incorporate some of the feedback into future iterations of the API. Accordingly, as we learn more about how the public might seek to use this data — and as a result of our agile and user-centered methodologies — the API structure may change in quite a bit in the coming months. It’s also important to note that this API, like all others on openFDA, are in beta and are not ready for clinical use. However, their contribution to FDA’s public health mission already now grows every day.

Taha A. Kass-Hout, M.D., M.S., is FDA Chief Health Informatics Officer and Director of FDA Office of Informatics and Technology Innovation

FDA Leverages Big Data Via Cloud Computing

By: Taha A. Kass-Hout, M.D., M.S.

Last year, I worked with a group of colleagues throughout the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on a project that is critical for the agency’s future: the modernization of our information technology platforms to prepare for the influx of “Big Data”—the enormous data sets we receive daily from manufacturers, health care providers, regulatory bodies, scientists and others.

Taha Kass-HoutThese data sets are not only larger than ever before, they are also arriving more frequently than ever and varying enormously in format, and quality.

This year alone, we expect to receive somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million submissions through our eSubmission Gateway – and some submissions can now be as large as a Terabyte (one trillion bytes) in size. This is the very definition of a big data.

But, at FDA, we view it as an opportunity and a challenge. To meet both, we are building an innovative technology environment that can handle vast amounts of data and provide powerful tools to identify and extract the information we need to collect, store and analyze.

A key example is our recent leveraging of cloud computing.

“Cloud computing” is, basically, computing on demand. Think of how you use water, or electricity, at the same time as do your neighbors and millions of others. You pay only for what you use, and service is always guaranteed. You don’t need to wait till your neighbor is done to use the washer or dryer because there is only enough electrical capacity to handle one person at a time.

The same is true of cloud computing, which stores data on the Internet, rather than on the hard drive or drives of computers. In essence, it gives us the ongoing, simultaneous capacity to collect, control and analyze enormous data sets.

For example, FDA, partnering with state and local health organizations, identifies thousands of foodborne pathogen contaminants every year. We sequence, store and analyze this data to understand, locate, and contain life-threatening outbreaks. Again, cloud computing aids us in this effort.

Finally, FDA has some of the world’s most valuable data stores about human health and medicine. Through OpenFDA, our newest IT program, we are making some of these existing publicly available data sets more easily accessible to the public and to our regulatory stakeholders in a structured, computer readable format that will make it possible for technology specialists, such as mobile application creators, web developers, data visualization artists and researchers to quickly search, query, or pull massive amounts of public information instantaneously and directly from FDA datasets on an as needed basis. OpenFDA is beginning with an initial pilot program involving the millions of reports of drug adverse events and medication errors that have been submitted to the FDA from 2004 to 2013 and will later be expanded to include the agency’s databases on product recalls and product labeling.

OpenFDA promotes data sharing, data access, and transparency in our regulatory and safety processes, and spurs innovative ideas for mining the data and promoting the public health.

Big data is important to the way we carry out regulatory science, which is the science of developing new tools and approaches to assess the safety, efficacy, quality, and performance of FDA-regulated products. Through innovative methods such as cloud computing, we are taking advantage of this flood tide of new information to continue to protect and promote the public health.

Taha A. Kass-Hout, M.D., M.S., is FDA’s Chief Health Informatics Officer and Director of FDA’s Office of Informatics and Technology Innovation.

OpenFDA: Innovative Initiative Opens Door to Wealth of FDA’s Publicly Available Data

By: Taha A. Kass-Hout, M.D., M.S.

Today, I am pleased to announce the launch of openFDA, a new initiative from our Office of Informatics and Technology Innovation (OITI). OpenFDA is specifically designed to make it easier for web developers, researchers, and the public to access and use the many large, important, health data sets collected by the agency.

Taha Kass-HoutThese publicly available data sets, once successfully integrated and analyzed, can provide knowledge and insights that cannot be gained from any other single source.

Consider the 3 million plus reports of drug adverse reactions or medication errors submitted to FAERS, the FDA Adverse Event Reporting System (previously AERS), since 2004.

Researchers, scientists, software developers, and other technically-focused individuals in both the private and public sectors have always been invited to mine that publicly available data set – and others – to educate consumers, which in turn can further our regulatory or scientific missions, and ultimately, save lives.

But obtaining this information hasn’t always been easy.

In the past, these vast datasets could be difficult for industry to access and to use.  Pharmaceutical companies, for example, send hundreds of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to FDA every year because that has been one of the ways they could get this data. Other methods called for downloading large amounts of files encoded in a variety of formats or not fully documented, or using a website to point-and-click and browse through a database – all slow and labor-intensive processes.

openFDA logoOpenFDA will make our publicly available data accessible in a structured, computer-readable format. It provides a “search-based” Application Programming Interface – the set of requirements that govern how one software application can talk to another – that makes it possible to find both structured and unstructured content online.

Software developers can now build their own applications (such as a mobile phone app or an interactive website) that can quickly search, query or pull massive amounts of public information instantaneously and directly from FDA datasets in real time on an “as-needed” basis. Additionally, with this approach, applications can be built on one common platform that is free and open to use. Publicly available data provided through openFDA are in the public domain with a CC0 Public Domain Dedication.

Drug adverse events is the first dataset – with reports submitted from 2004 through 2013 available now.

Using this data, a mobile developer could create a search app for a smart phone, for example, which a consumer could then use to determine whether anyone else has experienced the same adverse event they did after taking a certain drug.

As we focus on making existing public data more easily accessible, and providing appropriate documentation and examples to developers, it’s important to note that we will not release any data that could be used to identify individuals or reveal other private information.

OpenFDA uses cutting-edge technologies deployed on FDA’s new Public Cloud Computing infrastructure enabled by OITI, and will serve as a pilot for how FDA can interact internally and with external stakeholders, spur innovation, and develop or use novel applications securely and efficiently. As we move forward with the early stages of openFDA, we will be listening closely to the public, researchers, industry and all other users for their feedback on how to make openFDA even more useful in promoting and protecting the public health.

Taha A. Kass-Hout, M.D., M.S., is FDA’s Chief Health Informatics Officer and Director of FDA’s Office of Informatics and Technology Innovation.