HHS blockchain-AI project gets go-ahead to use live agency acquisition data

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The Department of Health and Human Services can now use live data from its acquisition shop in order to buy things faster, and more cheaply, using a blockchain-and-artificial intelligence tool called HHS Accelerate.

Jose Arrieta, the associate deputy assistant secretary for acquisition, told Federal News Network on Friday that HHS Accelerate, having gotten an authority to operate (ATO) on Monday, will pull current data from five contract-writing systems and about 100,000 contracts that represent nearly $25 billion in annual spend. The data will update every 24 hours.

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“We believe that there’s significant savings and significant price negotiation power that will come with having full visibility into prices paid,” Arrieta said Friday.

When agencies want to make a strategically sourced buy of something, Arrieta said it can take a matter months to pull all the data together and analyze it.

“Now we have the ability to do that analysis in one second, and provide the information to the contracting officer in negotiation or acquisition planning,” Arrieta said. “That is extremely powerful. It’s like going to Target — let’s say you’re buying an iPhone — you look up the price on Amazon and find out it’s $30 cheaper. You show it to the Target cashier and they give you a discount. That is the empowerment of the acquisition workforce and empowerment of the contracting professional.”

While HHS Accelerate uses track of the structured data taxonomy, the tool also uses robotic process automation and machine learning to automate some of the business processes.

“Machine learning actually cleanses the data as it comes in from our legacy systems. Blockchain becomes the reference point and the taxonomy holder,” Arrieta said.

Now that it’s authorized to use live data, the HHS Accelerate team expects to make to tweaks to the project.

“Once we get it operating smoothly, we’ve got to start to share it with our workforce and get feedback from them on what’s valuable and where we can provide better analysis and drill-down and focus,” Arietta said.

By March 2019, HHS looks to have a functioning capability that it can start to use to provide information to its contracting workforce.

“That means extracting the data from the writing systems, being able to analyze it, and then push it to the contracting professionals and get feedback from them on what information is useful, what information could be more useful, what is not useful, and start to train the machine learning in that way,” Arrieta said.

Next summer, before the end of the third quarter of FY 2019, HHS expects to make a decision on when the agency will transition from one of its legacy systems, Departmental Contracts Information System, to HHS Acceleration.

“We think that won’t have any effect on the workforce,” Arrieta said. “They won’t even know that a change has occurred.”

HHS Accelerate stands out as just one of the projects developed by the agency’s Buy Smarter initiative.

Last month, Lori Ruderman, the co-lead of the Buy Smarter initiative,  projected that the agency could save upwards of $720 million by identifying the lowest price possible for bulk purchases of everyday items like copy paper and medical examination gloves.

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