UVA Leads Nationwide Project to Protect Health Data for COVID-19 Research

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August 03, 2020

The National Science Foundation has awarded the University of Virginia a $1.2 million expansion of a grant to develop a secure, high-performance computing system for research, with the new funds supporting nationwide use of the system for COVID-19 research.

The problem UVA is tackling is multi-faceted. Research institutions need secure, high-performance computing capability for sensitive research data; meanwhile, regulations protecting such data are quickly expanding. Meeting the regulations as data grows exponentially requires costly computing infrastructure, which some institutions cannot afford.

In 2019, the National Science Foundation supported UVA’s proposed work to broaden Virginia universities’ access to protected data for research with a $2.5 million grant to establish the Virginia Assuring Controls Compliance of Research Data, or Virginia ACCORD. ACCORD offers access to data storage and computational capability that are compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act – HIPAA – for researchers who might otherwise not have access through their institutions.

Access to research computing infrastructure for safely collecting, storing and analyzing sensitive data became even more important in 2020. Researchers across all fields of science and engineering who might not normally work on health research were diving into critical COVID-19 projects that would potentially intersect with protected data.

For instance, computer scientists and education researchers might work with school districts to study and model the pandemic’s effect on students. As part of that study, researchers may collect data from students on their health. If any student were to include personal information, the entire data set would become individually identifiable health data. The best approach would be to implement the project within a “safe” research environment where data is protected by default.

COVID-19 researchers at smaller institutions across the United States would find themselves at a disadvantage without access to adequate and secure environments for protected health data. Recognizing this need, the Virginia ACCORD team proposed an expansion to the National Science Foundation in support of COVID-19 researchers.

“UVA’s leadership in building the ACCORD cyberinfrastructure will give researchers at universities across our nation access to the rich, secure data they need for critical COVID-19 research,” said Melur K. (Ram) Ramasubramanian, vice president for research at UVA.

The effort to develop a national-scale, high-performance computing system for Assuring Controls Compliance of Research Data for COVID-19, or ACCORD-COVID, is led by Ronald R. Hutchins, vice president for information technology at UVA, and Scott Bevins, associate provost for information services and chief information officer at UVA-Wise. The team includes researchers from Georgia Tech, Indiana University, Stanford University and University of Utah.

“Science and engineering research on COVID-19 that is informed by health data is foundational for a lot more than just health care,” Hutchins said.

Tho H. Nguyen, a senior research program officer in UVA Engineering’s Department of Computer Science who wrote the proposal for the grant expansion, said the importance of ACCORD-COVID for supporting the research needed to understand the effects of the virus cannot be overstated.

“Any crisis brings a surge of research breakthroughs at the beginning, and these are generally driven by large groups answering large questions,” he said. “Those efforts raise thousands of new questions that need to be answered at the community level for a granular understanding of the problem.” Researchers often describe this as the “long tail” of science.

“The ACCORD-COVID infrastructure will provide a tremendous amount of support to the researchers immersed in that ‘long tail’ of science,” Nguyen said.

ACCORD-COVID secure high-performance computing resources will be available to all COVID-19 research projects funded by the National Science Foundation. Researchers at other institutions will have independent access to the system and maintain full control over their data.

“UVA Engineering researchers are actively seeking opportunities to contribute to the nation’s pandemic response, and we are proud of the expertise we can bring to bear in a wide range of areas,” said Susan Barker, UVA Engineering’s associate dean for research.

The National Science Foundation also provided $40,000 for undergraduate student internships at UVA and its partner institutions. Internships are already in place at some of the Virginia partners. Going forward, emphasis will be placed on internships at smaller partner institutions outside of Virginia.

The project is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure through the Major Research Instrumentation Program. The project is an investment to address growing disparities in universities’ access to protected data for research.