UVA Leads Statewide Effort to Broaden Access to Research on Protected Data

Imagine you’re a professor at a small university. You have a research idea that could lead to a breakthrough in health care, but in order to conduct the research, you need access to big, medical data sets. The federal government could provide the data, plus grant money to fund the project, but only if you have the highly sophisticated, expensive computer system needed to protect the data. Your university doesn’t have that kind of computing infrastructure, so the research idea is dead on arrival.

This is the problem the National Science Foundation has tapped the University of Virginia to help solve, with a new $2.5 million grant to broaden Virginia universities’ access to protected data for research.

The Virginia Assuring Controls Compliance of Research Data, or ACCORD, is a collaborative effort of UVA and University of Virginia’s College at Wise, leading a team of researchers from 11 Virginia universities to build a high-performance computer system for hosting research using data that by law must be protected.

The project is part of the National Science Foundation’s Major Research Instrumentation Program, and is the first initiative of its kind in the United States to address growing disparities in universities’ access to protected data for research. The problem is multi-faceted; research institutions need high-performance computing capability for handling big data sets, while security regulations are expanding.

From left, Ron Hutchins, Scott Bevins and Tho Nguyen are heading up the ACCORD initiative that securely broadens researchers' access to protected data.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, for example, mandates protections for patients’ health information when used in medical research. Continuing to meet those regulations in the face of rapidly growing data sets requires costly computing infrastructure. Compounding the problem, some newer regulations have broad applicability. The Federal Information Security Management Act, enacted to protect government information, now covers every federally funded researcher and institution.

A statewide solution is needed because the federal government is becoming more protective of data requested by non-governmental entities. Researchers throughout the commonwealth must prove they can control and secure the data, meeting the vast and expanding body of government regulations.

Smaller universities are disproportionately affected. In many cases, they cannot seek research opportunities because they cannot provide the infrastructure to guarantee protection for increasingly large, diverse sets of data.

The team led by UVA and UVA-Wise includes The College of William & Mary, George Mason University, James Madison University, Norfolk State University, Old Dominion University, Radford University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, and their project is aimed at creating a shared, high-performance computing system to support research that uses sensitive data. The new system can be updated for new regulations.

/University of Virginia Public Release. View in full here.