Apr 12 2013

FDA Launches Three Big Data Initiatives

Agency is hoping for big gains from big data investments.

“Big data” is a buzzword in the federal technology community, used in many contexts to describe large sets of unstructured data. The mountains of data available point to the ability to better improve services and streamline government operations. The Food and Drug Administration is one agency that is hungry to collect and analyze data, according to Nextgov:

The Food and Drug Administration is launching full bore into new data mining techniques as evidenced by three solicitation documents posted recently.

The agency posted a sources sought document on Tuesday seeking a vendor that could crawl through more than 20 million biomedical journal abstracts and citations housed on a National Library of Medicine database to uncover drugs that are disproportionately associated with “adverse events.”

Adverse events cause harm and may involve death, life-threatening illness or hospitalization. The initiative is a great example of an agency delivering better services using existing data, and the project could potentially save lives.

As Nextgov reports, the goal of the solicitation is to uncover the safety signals “associated with FDA-approved drugs or drugs the FDA is considering approving. A safety signal is any event, positive or negative, that sometimes accompanies taking a new drug.” Although the initiative doesn’t specify what data sources the FDA will tap , the project is another clear signal that the agency has big plans when it comes to big data.

The agency’s third and final step in this particular data-mining effort is more transparent. The FDA would like to expand outside of its systems and databases to monitor the web for illicit activity:

In late March, FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigation began soliciting for a program to monitor the Web for illegal sales of drugs, medical devices, cosmetics and veterinary products as well as counterfeit food and adulterated or misbranded vaccines.

While the FDA’s work using data mining is specific to its mission, there are important lessons to be learned from the planning and execution of big data projects. If the FDA is successful in employing data mining in these projects, it could be a huge gain, not just for the agency but also for the government as a whole.


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