data science (chombosan/


How VA, ICE use data for decision making

When it comes to treating veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs collects information on a variety of health conditions for patients ranging in age from 18 to 90. But the agency has problems sharing this information with researchers who could use it advance medical treatments.

“We have all of these data sets locked in silos and part of the problem is knowing that this data exists and how to access it,” Rick Chandler, chief financial officer for VA’s Office of Information and Technology, said at the Feb. 22 Tableau Government Summit. “We have strong partnerships with some of the best academic institutions in the country, but using the power of data to make executive decisions is still a relatively new phenomenon.”

VA recently conducted a pilot with the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System to test how a “behavioral integrated approach” to mental health could improve quality of care. The pilot showed a 28 percent decrease in the number of suicide events and 38 percent drop in opioid abuse cases.

TVHS also was able to reduce costs by 16 percent, and employees were 20 percent more satisfied in their work. Based on these results, Chandler said, VA is working to figure out how it can replicate the program across the department's systems.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement also is finding benefits in better analytics.

ICE's Homeland Security Investigations component is composed of special agents, analysts, auditors and support staff who are responsible for tracking cross-border criminal activities. Peter Fitzhugh, assistant director of ICE's Information Management Division, said that work frequently requires HSI to ask congressional leaders for extra funding -- and they need data to back up their requests.

“Some of the new executive orders want us to look at the opioid crisis, MS-13 or worksite enforcement,” Fitzhugh said. Through data analytics platforms like Tableau, HSI is developing ways to collect data from state and local partners to “provide a narrative to Congress” showing how increases in resources and man hours could improve their operations.

And while data-driven tools can help the agency find and catch criminals, Fitzhugh said HSI is facing “three pillars of doom” that are impacting agents' ability to take action based on their findings.

“Now that we have these fabulous tools that allow us to do stuff very quickly, we want to be able to react, but oftentimes the folks who are responsible for the data being safeguarded [are concerned about the data] being stored in a certain way, ” Fitzhugh said. Access controls and the potential "cross-pollination of [sensitive] law enforcement data" are also areas of concern that complicate the efforts, he added.

In order to address this challenges, he said, HSI is looking to bring privacy experts in on the ground floor of operations, so that benefits can be realized immediately rather than several months done the line.

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for GCN, covering cloud, cybersecurity and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Before joining GCN, Friedman was a reporter for Gambling Compliance, where she covered state issues related to casinos, lotteries and fantasy sports. She has also written for Communications Daily and Washington Internet Daily on state telecom and cloud computing. Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

Click here for previous articles by Friedman.

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