By Audra Book

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 University of Virginia’s College at Wise and UVA, leading a team of researchers from 11 Virginia universities to build a high-performance computer 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.

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-Wise and UVA includes The College of William and 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.

Scott Bevins, associate provost for information services and chief information officer at UVA-Wise, and Ronald R. Hutchins, vice president for information technology at UVA, are leading the initiative. Tho H. Nguyen, a senior research program officer in UVA Engineering’s Department of Computer Science, serves as program manager for the grant. Andrew Grimshaw, computer science professor, was involved in early conceptualization of the project.

“The partnership between UVA and UVA-Wise speaks to the power of diversity and inclusion for creating the most effective outcomes in research,” Hutchins said. “If we bring in smaller schools with different ideas and backgrounds, it will help us in creating diversity. When we can include smaller schools, we can also provide access to the infrastructure necessary for handling large data sets. If ACCORD brings even two or three new researchers to a school because of data access, they can grow their research program, expanding research for the entire state.”

The collaboration also supports UVA’s mission to broaden statewide research by bringing in research partners, Hutchins said. “When protected data is involved, partnerships become complicated, particularly from a legal perspective. Our work will create a primer on how to bring in partners with protected data.”

“UVA-Wise is excited to be leading these efforts in partnership with UVA and looks forward to the opportunity to support research initiatives, provide additional training to faculty and students and create positive change for the community in Southwest Virginia,” said UVA-Wise Chancellor Donna Price Henry.

Co-leadership between UVA and UVA-Wise underscores the University’s recognition that the world of research has evolved. To address 21st century problems, researchers must work across traditional boundaries for outcomes that apply broadly to society. Hutchins and Bevins are exemplifying the teamwork that can best build community, support discovery and serve the Commonwealth of Virginia.
“We are inspired by the mission to broaden access to the data revolution at smaller and non-research-oriented institutions such as UVA-Wise,” Bevins said. “This collaboration enhances our research capacity by underpinning our ability to handle sensitive data.”

Bevins will head up programmatic activities, like engaging research partners and managing project progress to ensure successful project completion. Hutchins will serve as lead investigator, and all technical work for creating the ACCORD infrastructure will take place on UVA’s main Grounds in Charlottesville. Nguyen was tapped early in the process to help build the consortium of research partners and define program objectives.

As a former science and technology fellow with the National Science Foundation, Nguyen brings a policy perspective. He views the initiative as transformational for Virginia and the nation. “What is so powerful is that ACCORD explores a model for apportioning risk that allows federated access to protected data infrastructure. If successful, we will develop a collaborative model that other states can follow,” he said.

“UVA is leading the nation in pioneering a process to harness the power of big data in the face of sweeping policy changes to protect sensitive data.”

Bevins also sees the project as transformative for UVA-Wise to better serve its students, community and region. Access to sensitive medical data could be particularly important, for example, in research aimed at stemming the opioid crisis in Southwest Virginia.

The grant supports training for data security and best practices, an essential skillset in the modern workforce. Additionally, it provides two $8,000 stipends for UVA-Wise students who are interested in research computing, genomic data and other related computer science or research topics.
Enrichment opportunities available to the community through ACCORD are being administrated by the Appalachian Prosperity Project, a partnership among UVA-Wise, UVA, the coalfield region, the Commonwealth and private sector corporations to advance prosperity in Southwest Virginia. Beth Hubbard and Emily Wells, research program managers at the Appalachian Prosperity Project, will be located on the UVA-Wise grounds in the Winston Ely Health & Wellness Center where they will coordinate trainings and connect faculty and community partners.