For public health practitioners, the ability to quickly collect, analyze and take action on data is paramount to containing the spread of a deadly new virus or disease.
But despite the advent of big data technologies, collecting this information today remains a highly cumbersome and time-consuming process, explains Jim Nasr, chief software architect at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services tasked with combating the spread of preventive and chronic disease.
Now in search of a better solution, Nasr is eyeing a blockchain proof-of-concept he believes could facilitate the more rapid and reliable capture of epidemiological data in crisis situations.
The agency will discuss the concept, aimed at public health data surveillance, along with several other PoCs, at the Distributed: Health conference in Nashville on Tuesday.
"It turns out that there's a lot of manual intervention involved and there's a lot of time lost in this whole process," said Nasr, adding:
"Right now, this is a situation that could literally take months to happen, but with the blockchain it could be done possibly in hours."
Though one of a number of recently announced blockchain trials within the US government, the CDC's announcement is nonetheless more notable due to high-profile operational struggles its seen in recent years. For example, the CDC was roundly criticized in 2014 for its sluggish response to the Ebola crisis in west Africa, when several unknowingly-infected patients were allowed travel back to the U.S.
To improve its ability to nip these types of crises at the bud, the agency sought to work toward more real-time data flows by breaking down data silos and developing more interoperability between systems.
"What it comes down to from a software perspective is to get as close as possible to real-time data delivery," Nasr said. "If we're at real time, or what I'd like to think of as 'near-real time,' then the results that we're getting are going to have an impact."
But, Nasr explained, it turns out that achieving this real-time "nirvana" was far easier said than done:
"As we've done this, what's become really evident is that the CDC was never designed to be a clearing house or some sort of Swift settlement area where the data comes in and we eventually sell [it off]."
So, instead of capturing and funneling disparate forms of data into a central registry to be pieced together, cleaned up, validated and then analyzed, the CDC is now looking to process this surveillance data by encrypting it directly from local sources onto a blockchain.
These transaction records would be made available to not just the CDC, but to other nodes - local public health agencies, hospitals, pharmacies - involved in the disaster relief efforts that would be involved in treating the at-risk patients.
"If I'm in Houston and I'm exposed to standing water for two or three days and potentially exposed to some deadly virus, through this process it could be determined that I need to take some vaccinations and some medication, and I can then provide the consent for that," said Nasr.
Yet, at a time when many blockchain proofs-of-concept are still struggling to go live, the CDC believes there is real promise in its chosen use case.
The unique urgencies of a disaster response and the disparate nature of the actors involved - CDC staff, local governments, local health workers, contractors, etc. - means that a shared, decentralized and real-time record of truth has significant value over legacy alternatives.
Nasr said that experience has proven that his agency's legacy data management systems aren't up to the task.
"We have had Oracle and various other databases up the wazoo for many, many decades, and we've spent a tremendous amount of money on licensing and building these things," Nasr explained. "And as you can tell, we're nowhere near [what a blockchain solution might provide]."
Micah Winkelspecht, chief executive officer of Gem, an enterprise blockchain provider that with a focus on healthcare, reckoned that the parallels between the decentralized nature of disaster relief operations and blockchain make it a strong use case for the technology.
"I don't know that a command and control solution really makes sense when we're talking about real-time actors out in the field trying to work with immediate data," he said.
"Ultimately, disaster relief is a distributed network," Winkelspecht continued. "It's a bunch of people on the ground who are really just trying to solve problems locally, and what they need is a really efficient way to share information and data with each other in order to do their jobs and to do it quickly."
Gem has been in collaboration with the CDC on this and other blockchain PoCs, in addition to Microsoft, IBM and handful of others. The CDC hopes to make a final decision toward the end of the year as to which vendors it will partner with for the project.
Disclosure: CoinDesk is a subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which has ownership stake in Gem.
Flooding image via Shutterstock