IT can help fight bioterror

Dozens of overlapping IT systems could prevent the US government from responding properly to a bioterrrorist attack.

Dozens of overlapping IT systems could prevent the US government from responding properly to a bioterrrorist attack.

A US General Accounting Office (GAO) study has found flaws in the government's implementation of bioterrorism-related information systems and recommended better co-ordination of information technology programs to improve the nation's preparedness for bioterrorist attacks or new disease outbreaks.

The report, "Bioterrorism: Information Technology Strategy Could Strengthen Federal Agencies' Abilities to Respond to Public Health Emergencies", reviewed six federal agencies' efforts to use IT to prepare for and respond to bioterrorist attacks, ranging from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to the Department of Defense (DOD).

The GAO found a plethora of existing and planned systems for tracking bioterrorist threats, but little co-ordination or data sharing between the systems or the agencies that relied on them.

In all, GAO counted 72 information systems and technology programs in use across the six agencies, including 34 for collecting and analysing disease data, 10 for communications and reporting systems, 10 for detection of bioterrorist threats and 18 for tools and systems to support disease detection and analysis.

Only 30% of the systems or programs were co-ordinated or jointly developed with other agencies. The level of co-ordination between the different government agencies ranged from a total lack of contact between agencies to jointly developed projects.

The GAO has recommended that the government exert leadership on the issue and adopt health care data standards to encourage sharing between public health systems.

There are a number of data standards initiatives under way at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the DOD and other agencies, but there has been little effort to co-ordinate those initiatives across the government or develop milestones for their implementation, the GAO said.

The government seems to recognise the problem, however, and is encouraging agencies to take an "enterprise" approach  - thinking about the federal government as one entity rather than a collection of separate agencies - when it comes to purchasing and planning.

Still, a certain level of tolerance for redundancy is probably necessary, and the federal government instead should focus on connecting the agencies with capable networks and resources said Jim Lewis, a senior fellow at the centre for strategic and international studies, a US publich policy think tank.

Paul Roberts writes for IDG News Service

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