FDA reorg splits CIO, informatics roles in preparation for network innovations

The Food and Drug Administration will hire a new chief information officer in the next few months. Unlike previous CIOs, this person will not wear two hats as the chief informatics officer.

Walter Harris, the chief operating officer and acting chief information officer at the Food and Drug Administration, said the splitting of these two roles just made business sense for the bureau.

“We hired FDA’s first chief health informatics officer, Dr. Taha Kass-Hout, to promote and develop innovative enterprise solutions and identify opportunities for transparency, and the availability of FDA’s health data,” Harris said. “You may have heard he was one of the masterminds or engineers behind OpenFDA. OpenFDA allows us to share commonly understood information with the general public, and they have the ability to create tools. Researchers and scientific technologists have the ability to extract this information and build their own tools to manipulate the data in the formats that helps them to resolve problems beyond the FDA. We think we’ve done that. Dr. Taha also is focused on other innovative needs such a cloud enablement, big data, open data, high performance computing, the next generation genome sequencing. We felt there was a critical need to have a structure in OIMT that has a strong deliver person which is the CIO, who knows all the wires, wheels and has all the strategic lines for IT needs. We also felt it was just as important to have a strong scientific personality involved in our process so the scientific parts of the agency needs are met.”

Harris said many people overlook FDA’s scientific mission for its investigative or inspection missions. But he said the agency has a huge focus on scientific research.

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FDA has been without a CIO and chief health informatics officer since April 2013 when Eric Perakslis left government after 18 months. Harris has been the acting CIO since then, and only gave up the CHIO hat in December when the agency hired Kass-Hout.

Harris said the FDA is in the final stages of naming a new CIO, which could happen sometime in the next 90 days.

“It’s a huge job. I felt we could give it more individualized attention if we had a mastermind behind the science piece and a mastermind behind the IT services needs. I think this new structure allows us to do that,” he said. “A third piece that we focused on besides the technology delivery area is the business and customer assurance area, which covers field base services, desktop support and a large range of collaboration tools. We feel dividing up the areas this way does help us meet the needs of many requirements across the FDA.”

Along with the splitting of the CIO and CHIO roles, Harris reorganized the Office of Information Management and Technology (OIMT) earlier this year to better serve the agency’s mission areas.

Harris said over the last year he set out to determine the full capabilities and opportunities of the IT office by meeting with its customers.

The result of that analysis was a new set up for OIMT based on four components: the chief information security officer, a director of technology delivery, a director of customer service and a director of health informatics.

“The driver was customers didn’t really know who to go to for what services,” he said. “Besides just doing a structure change with the organization, we also created service catalogs that break all of our services down to 61 lines, and now the customers know exactly what we offer them. It took a combination of restructuring the actual boxes and wire diagrams, and putting into place an allocation model that lays out the services we provide to the entire agency and it allows us to clearly articulate to the customers what we are providing them by services, but more importantly it gives them a better education of what they are using by way of services so their bills map to what we are charging them.”

Harris said now that the reorganization is completed and the new CIO almost is in place, FDA’s next IT project is the continued modernization of its infrastructure. The FDA is moving to a hybrid cloud approach to help improve how it delivers data to its audience.

He said the agency will rely on the cloud to ensure the network doesn’t get bottlenecked with all the searching, storage and computing going on across the mission areas.

“We are talking about a public cloud and private cloud. We want to be able to share information freely, but at the same time protect, for example, trade secrets information,” Harris said. “We have a tough mission to juggle, but we believe if we go with the hybrid approach we can satisfy the needs of the public, and we can satisfy the needs of our industry partners to make sure everything is secure with their data.”

Harris said the FDA will move aggressively with the cloud strategy in 2015.

A second priority is the integration of FDA’s mobile technology strategy in to its mission areas.

“Where we stand, mobility is the ability to do work from anywhere regardless of the device itself,” he said. “Tablet and smartphones are first to be piloted. Soon we will roll out in a phased approach all across the FDA these various types of smartphones to do various types of work with. Having said all of that, it’s important we keep security and privacy in mind.”

Harris said eventually he’d like to see FDA employees have the option of bring-your-own-device.

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