HHS CIO Jose Arrieta is using emerging technologies such as blockchain to make his department more efficient.

Feb 04 2020

Q&A: HHS CIO Brings Procurement Expertise to the IT Table

Jose Arrieta runs the civilian agency's IT shop with the second-largest technology budget, and is using innovations such as blockchain to push modernization.

With 11 operating divisions and a budget request of more than $1 trillion for fiscal 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services is a sprawling agency that touches the lives of every American. CIO Jose Arrieta tells FedTech about the ways that emerging tech such as blockchain can make his department more efficient, and how his experience with procurement — his resume includes a stint at the General Services Administration as director of the 7.5 million-item Schedule 70 Operations contract vehicle — is critical to moving modernization along efficiently. He also discusses how his agency is using technology to respond to COVID-19.

FEDTECH: Why is having a procurement background important for a CIO? 

ARRIETA: An acquisition background helped me navigate, develop and build a cutting-edge IT program that I think will change the function of federal acquisitions. I started working here on Jan. 9, 2018. We had a full business plan that we thought would generate a significant return on investment, well over 100 percent. We had awarded a contract by April 17. That is unheard of in the federal government. Because of my acquisition background, we were able to go to market and identify a company that was really good at problem-solving, and we were able to actually have them solve an infrastructure challenge. We knew what our end goal was.

In this case, it’s HHS Accelerate. We want to lessen the burden on industry partners. We want to enable program officials with the information they need to do their job in real time. We want to empower contracting professionals with insight into terms and conditions and prices paid. I’m trying to create an incentive structure that maximizes the use of technology in solving the business problems I have. We’re going to be able to do something that I believe is the future of federal acquisition. I think its fundamentally game changing. 

FEDTECH: Explain what HHS Accelerate does.

ARRIETA: HHS Accelerate is an infrastructure that allows sharing of data from disparate data sets. It aggregates that information and allows it to be used at an individual level for individual execution, but also lets it be analyzed at a macro level for decision-making.

HHS Accelerate, which uses distributed-ledger technology, does three specific things. First, it lessens the burden on industry partners. If you’re doing business with HHS, we’re going to provide a record of all your historical interactions with us, so that you don’t have to respond to a request for information every time for the thousand analytic RFIs that come out. We want to lessen the cost to do business with HHS, so industry partners can focus their dollars on the challenges that we have.

Second, it empowers contracting professionals. We’ve actually built a recurrent neural network off of HHS Accelerate that reads 9,000 statements of work. Finally, it predicts whether or not the work could be performed by a government employee, or not, with a 90 percent accuracy rate. We are empowering the decision-maker with the information they need to make a tough decision. 

VIDEO: What are the seldomly asked questions around emerging tech? 

FEDTECH: What technology is used to make this work?

ARRIETA: It’s just a small layer of our technology stack. We’re using blockchain as an attestation layer and for integrity of data, and that’s it. If you know anything about a recurrent neural network, you know that sometimes you have to forget what has occurred before in order to make a new decision. It’s really hard to do that if you store everything in one database. We use the hashing mechanism of blockchain to connect three memories that are interrelated but that may need to be forgotten at any moment in time to drive a different outcome. Without being able to store information in multiple locations and keep them connected to one another, it’s very hard to do deep learning. 

HHS CIO Jose Arrieta
I’m trying to create an incentive structure that maximizes the use of technology in solving the business problems I have.”

Jose Arrieta HHS CIO

FEDTECH: How does this happen in a department with so many different operating divisions?

ARRIETA: If you look at HHS, we’re a holding company. We’re the largest financial services firm in the world. We are the largest research institute. We are the largest funder of research in the world. We run the sixth largest hospital system in the world. We’re unique. 

I’m not trying to create a single system that facilitates how we do business. I’m trying to create an infrastructure that has access to an indexed data set and a core business service layer that’s the same. At the application layer, you have the ability to customize it. You have the ability to use commercial off-the-shelf technology — I’ll provide the data. Is access to data and information on $26.2 billion in annual spend valuable to you? If you don’t have infrastructure to share data and the data scientist doesn’t have access to data, then the data scientist doesn’t matter. 

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Find out how your agency can successfully migrate data to modern architectures. 

FEDTECH: What are the most important technological issues that HHS is facing right now?

ARRIETA: The biggest challenge that I think every agency that has a lot of data struggles with is, how do we cleanse data? How do we govern data? How do we move it in an automated fashion to a commercial cloud environment? How do we index it and make it available? Then how do we maximize the way we use data? And you have to have data that’s separate from business process, so that I can access the data in a flexible manner and on an as-needed basis when I need to use it. It’s very hard to actually extract data from workflow to drive insights. This is a sea change in terms of how we do business. 

The next challenge is that we have a bunch of legacy systems. You really have to be smart as to how you move to the cloud. You need a capability where you can run your legacy infrastructure and your legacy applications, but you also have the flexibility to modernize by building new applications on modern infrastructure. 

The last piece is acquisition. Just like in the private sector, you can have the greatest ideas in the world, but you have to be able to execute within federal laws. If you can’t execute, you’re not going to be able to achieve what you want to achieve. I think that those are some of the challenges that we face.

FEDTECH: What emerging technologies are interesting to you besides blockchain?

ARRIETA: We have a very big interest on behavioral-based identity at the edge of a network. It means using 240 indicators of behavior as a way to create identity on the network itself. Rather than just username and password, I can use your behavior. Who do you text? What apps do you use? How often do you text? I can use heart rate and gait as mechanisms to create and establish your identity.

We think that’s really interesting. For the private sector healthcare markets, we think it’s important because it allows us to enable the Internet of Things. For instance, using Qualcomm Snapdragon chips, we may be able to create IoT-enabled devices that unlock and provide access to users on the basis of behavioral-based identity, so that you no longer have to sit in an operating room with everything logged in, which is a huge cybersecurity risk. We think it can be transformational.

FEDTECH: How has technology helped HHS ­during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The response effort has shown us the importance of investing in burstable cloud capabilities because it allows us to ingest data from multiple sources. Cloud capabilities allow us to bring the data together quickly for more complex ­analysis. This gives us the ability to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to help understand and hopefully flatten the curve. We are using these techniques right now to fight this invisible virus. 

(Updated May 12 with additional information)

Photography by André Chung

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