The COVID-19 pandemic allowed the Federal government to speed up its AI data integration tools in a way that would have never been possible if it were not for the “all hands on deck” approach, according to Greg Singleton, chief artificial intelligence officer at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).


At the ATARC GITEC Conference in Annapolis, Md., on May 1, Singleton explained how the pandemic serves as a perfect example of what the Federal government can achieve when it puts its mind to it.


“All hands on deck team and unity of purpose allowed us to do a lot, but in a practical sense, that translated into our ability to reevaluate our existing data collection practices, a willingness to reconsider data sharing agreements, and reach beyond what we thought we could do with our ambitions,” Singleton said.


“In many cases, it’s a question of what we set out to do and that determines what we’re able to accomplish. And in COVID, we just set our sights way higher than we ever thought we possibly could,” he added.


For example, Singleton said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, his team was able to use AI data integration tools to identify the initial vaccine trial patients. AI data integration tools also allowed his team to look at available supplies – such as masks, ventilators, and therapeutic drugs – to see where they were available, and forecast where they would be needed.


Computationally, he said that these AI efforts were not “particularly novel, but they were critical for enabling a number of successful parts of the COVID response.”


Nevertheless, he said the pandemic proved that there are several opportunities for AI in Federal health.


“Why does it take so long for us to get the data ready and available for the public? In COVID, we were doing this on a real-time basis every single day,” he explained.


“We did have a team of experts that was looking at all the data every day,” Singleton continued. “But, there are AI tools out there that can allow you to do that data screening. So, what’s our ambition and what’s our appetite for getting data out there to people more and more quickly?”


Regardless of the specific tools, he explained that his team was able to do “a lot more than we thought we could do,” because of leadership that said, “Go, do it. We need this. Everyone get together, everyone work on it.”


“These technologies and tools provide the opportunity to develop new models, new approaches, and new outlooks on Federal health efforts,” he said. “If we updated our healthcare systems to communicate in real time, share in real-time, protect privacy in real-time, we can end up with something like real-time disease detection.”

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Grace Dille
Grace Dille
Grace Dille is MeriTalk's Assistant Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.