CDC Wants to Use Blockchain to Get People to Crisis Zones Faster

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The tech would pull data from across the agency and automatically identify the right people for certain emergencies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is exploring whether blockchain technology can help speed up its process for deploying experts to combat epidemics and other health crises.

When disaster strikes, responders can’t waste time getting their act together, but today disparate databases keep the agency from moving as quickly as officials would like, Sachiko Kuwabara, director of CDC’s Office of Risk Management, said Tuesday at a forum hosted by FCW.

But by using a blockchain tool being developed by her team, the agency could potentially pull all that information into one place and automate the deployment process.

Getting the right experts on the ground in emergency zones “is central to our ability to respond in a timely and effective way,” Kuwabara said, but it’s a pretty heavy lift. CDC first needs to identify the people with the skills needed for a given situation, then it must ensure those individuals meet all the requirements for deployment. Because the agency frequently operates abroad, that means checking people’s medical clearances, vaccinations, visas and a slew of other factors before they can approve someone to ship out.

That information, however, is scattered across databases housed within different components, she said, and pulling it together is an arduous process. The data doesn’t come in any standardized format, and because different copies are stored in different places, officials don’t know which sources to trust, she said.

“We want to have systems that can start to speak to each other, and that’s one of the core tenants of blockchain and distributed ledger technology,” Kuwabara said.

Blockchain allows users to store information on an encrypted ledger that permanently records every exchange. It’s distributed nature makes it useful for keeping tabs on valuable data and ensuring information is up-to-date.

In late September, Kuwabara’s office began building a proof of concept for a blockchain acts as a central repository that pulls data spread across CDC components. She told Nextgov she ultimately hopes the technology would eliminate the manual aspects of approving experts for deployment around the globe, as well as feed information to a mobile app the team is building for responders in the field.

Because the team was able to adopt blockchain applications already developed by other parts of the agency, the prototype is scheduled to be up and running sometime in December, she said.

“With this proof of concept, what we’re really trying to do is showcase the technology and demonstrate its value,” she said. "If we can do that, then we can start ... bringing in new folks onto the chain and gaining additional insights with additional data.”

Though increasing efficiency in government “seems like a no-brainer,” Kuwabara said, her team recognizes some people might not be as receptive to new ways of doing business. Moving forward, she said it’s important to address the cultural pushback and help employees reframe the way they think about and interact with data.

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