One agency’s search for data, ‘the new gold’

Money is never free. So what will the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration get for the almost $1 billion in grant money it will hand out over the next two years to combat the opioid crisis?

Data.

“Everything we do here is related to data. Data is the new gold,” said Don Cox, SAMHSA’s chief information officer said on Data Analytics month.

He said SAMHSA takes a similar approach to data as the Bureau of Labor Statistics — it must be tightly controlled, adhere to rigorous standards, and be reliable and consistent so as to be suitable for studies and research. That’s no small feat, considering how much data SAMHSA collects and stores.

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“If you put it all together, you’ll probably be talking zetabytes,” Cox told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

With only about 600 employees, Cox said SAMHSA keeps about 95 percent of its data in the cloud to free itself from the constraints of maintaining data centers.

The agency also employs various methods to collect that much data. Sometimes it’s a requirement attached to grant money.

“One of SAMHSA’s largest missions is to provide billions of dollars of grants to state, local and tribal entities in order to help them deal with the substance abuse and mental health issues that are going on in their areas,” Cox said. “And those grantees themselves have a requirement to collect information about the individuals that are being provided treatment, and then that information is being provided back to SAMHSA to include in its evaluations and its trending.”

But SAMHSA also acquires data from the private sector when it can.

“SAMHSA and the team of researchers that deal with data are always looking for other sources that they buy, purchase, maybe from a pharmaceutical company, where how many types of drugs and variations of drugs are sold on the street,” Cox said. “It might be from insurance companies: what types of treatments are people seeking and in what regions.”

But SAMHSA also collects data directly, usually through surveys designed in partnerships with other entities to look into specific issues. Sometimes the agency is trying to answer questions for another agency, like the Center for Disease Control or the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, other times for Congress or even the White House.

But no matter who SAMHSA is partnering with, it takes special care to ensure that the data collected not only adheres to its standards, but is also comparable to other forms of data it’s collected.

“When we’re creating the questions, we’re always looking at what was asked in the past, what do we need to know in the future to be helpful to the public, what’s going to be beneficial to the citizens of the U.S.?,” Cox said.

In the past, that usually meant structured data, highly organized for easy evaluation and analysis. But now SAMHSA is starting to look at unstructured data too, gathering information via social media and email to help them recognize trends in the public.

“Working with data, as I have for the past 10 years now, there’s the methodical set ways of asking questions and getting answers. And then you’ve come to realize there’s an inverse to the answer you expect,” Cox said. “And why does that inverse matter? Because it paints another whole picture of a potential thought that you have. But it’s really the individuals themselves and the varying thought processes of how to ask questions of the data in order to make these treatments or the programs or provide information back up to the public.”