Using Big Data to Track HIV

An innovative data-sharing technology developed at Georgetown will be used to improve the National HIV Surveillance System through a $2 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The surveillance system allows public health agencies and departments across the United States to monitor the dynamic nature of the HIV epidemic while significantly enhancing privacy protections. The technology also improves monitoring by quickly resolving duplicates so that HIV cases can be properly counted.

The grant, administered over a five-year period, will help the team of Georgetown researchers further develop the socio-technical approach that provides advanced privacy protections by using a specially engineered system that avoids permanent storage of parties’ data. It allows no user access while processing data, and only analyzes data while it is carefully isolated in computer memory—a substantial departure from traditional approaches to data sharing and analysis. J.C. Smart, PhD, professor of computer science and the grant’s principal investigator, says the data tool’s privacysensitive approach marks a major shift in the way HIV surveillance activities are conducted, and provides a framework applicable to other data-related activities.

Seble Kassaye, MD, assistant professor at the School of Medicine and principal investigator of the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Women’s Interagency HIV Study (DC-WIHS), serves as a co-principal investigator on the project. DC-WIHS, funded by the National Institutes of Health, focuses on research that helps better understand how HIV affects the lives of women in the D.C. area.

“Georgetown has merged a privacy-assuring technology with a highly sociological approach and successfully applied it to public health,” Kassaye says.

“Implementing this technology in the public health sphere will allow agencies and departments to have updated, comprehensive and accurate information regarding progress toward our national HIV treatment goals to achieve high levels of viral suppression,” she adds. “This is both for the benefit of the individual as well as to mitigate ongoing transmission of HIV.”

The project has allowed Georgetown to apply its academic and technical expertise to solve an important societal challenge, according to Joanne Michelle Ocampo, project director in public health informatics for the Office of the Senior Vice President for Research and Georgetown’s Medical Center. “This project is the direct result of years building collaborative public-private partnerships across public health agencies and academia and greatly illustrates how fruitful this type of interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral work can be,” says Ocampo.