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iSGTW Feature - The future of public health: grid gains traction

Feature - The future of public health: The grid gains traction


Dr. Ida A. Bengston (1881-1952) was one of the first women employed on the scientific staff of the Hygienic Laboratory of the Public Health Service, the predecessor to the National Institutes of Health. Bengston was particularly noted for her studies of bacterial toxins.

This photo is symbolic of the importance of laboratory equipment to the CDC's progress in the improvement of world wide public health standards.

Image courtesy of CDC, Betty Partin.

Drawing on data located in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, a University of Washington researcher simulates a tuberculosis outbreak in these three states and shares her work with researchers throughout the country. Well, not so fast-seamlessly gathering and distributing information in this way is still a vision of the future being brought to life by Tom Savel and his colleagues at the National Center for Public Health Informatics (NCPHI), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The U.S. public health community does not yet have a cohesive infrastructure for sharing and exchanging data, information and knowledge. Historically, the CDC developed independent applications to meet specific requirements, without a common platform for interoperability.

"It's time to move the field of public health informatics forward," Savel says, referring to information processing and system design, and that a flexible, secure grid is the way. The interconnectivity, the neutral, open-source environment and the efficient use of expensive resources it offers serve as incentives for wide, grass roots adoption. A public health informatics grid would encourage collaboration, he believes, as researchers strive to manage disease outbreaks and other potentially nation-wide or global threats.

But could this grid reconcile the rival forces of privacy and accessibility? Public health entities have been, and always will be, both consumers and producers of data, and this issue frequently rears its ugly head. The challenge is to find the balance. Savel's team is working hard to demonstrate the value that this evolving grid solution will bring to the public health community.

Detailed view of a "Containment Book" page from a 1975 smallpox outbreak, in which the names of anyone living in, or near an infected home were recorded, along with the findings. Subsequently all those listed were vaccinated against smallpox. The keeping of detailed records is extremely important, and is one of the hallmarks of properly practiced epidemiologic science.

Image courtesy of CDC/WHO, Stanley O. Foster M.D., M.P.H.

He and his colleagues are getting up to speed with Globus middleware and actively building a research grid. As a sandbox for trying out both grid technologies and actual public health informatics research, it's teaching them the best way to customize and implement a production public health informatics grid.

"We're making solid advancements, have eight nodes up on the research grid and continue to bring more online," says Savel. "We've got a couple of early adopters and are very excited with the traction we are getting." His team is hoping to roll out a production grid within the next year or so. The public should wish them well.

-Anne Heavey, iSGTW

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