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National HIV Surveillance to Improve With Georgetown’s CDC Grant

April 23, 2018 – A team of Georgetown researchers has been awarded a $2 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to provide a secure, high-assurance, privacy protection, data-sharing tool for use by public health agencies and departments across the United States.

The Georgetown-developed technology will improve the National HIV Surveillance System, which monitors the dynamic nature of the HIV epidemic within and across jurisdictional borders.  

The technology improves monitoring by quickly resolving duplicates in the Enhanced HIV/AIDS Reporting System (eHARS) so that HIV cases can be properly counted. It will also help public health jurisdictions decrease time spent on manual duplicate case resolution.

Important Contribution

“This award is an important contribution toward fighting the HIV epidemic and further strengthens Georgetown’s leadership in privacy-preserving, big-data analytics,” says Spiros Dimolitsas, senior vice president of research at Georgetown.

The grant, administered over a five-year period, will help the team of Georgetown researchers further develop the socio-technical approach that provides significant 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.  

Researchers from Georgetown, The George Washington University and their public health colleagues from D.C., Maryland and Virginia first published an interdisciplinary study in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance in 2016 outlining how they used this data technology to improve HIV surveillance across the mid-Atlantic region.

J.C. Smart, professor of computer science at Georgetown and the grant’s principal investigator, says the data tool’s privacy-sensitive approach marks a major shift in the way HIV surveillance activities are conducted and provides a framework applicable to other data-related activities.

Privacy Assurance

“We are very excited about this effort, as it allows us to apply our technology at significant scale to address a very important issue of major national concern,” Smart says. “The effort will further establish that national-level analysis of sensitive information can be conducted responsibly with an exceptional level of privacy assurance and protection.”

Dr. Seble Kassaye, assistant professor in Georgetown’s 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. metropolitan area.

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

Comprehensive and Accurate

“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.”

Joanne Michelle Ocampo, project director in public health informatics for the Office of the Senior Vice President for Research and Georgetown’s Medical Center, says the interdisciplinary project she manages has allowed Georgetown to apply its academic and technical expertise to solve an important societal challenge.

“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,” Ocampo says.