Helping CDC Embrace an Agile Mindset at the Height of the Pandemic

Behind every mission is a story.”

Behind the scenes, at a desk in an office on some floor of some department, everyday government heroes are making a difference in broad-sweeping IT modernization.

You may not always see it. But the impact it has on our lives is significant and I firmly believe that every taxpayer should get a peek behind the scenes every now and again. You’d be amazed at what’s going on.

Take for example, the incredible work that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) undertook during the pandemic to establish data as a strategic asset – for all of us.

Harnessing the power of data for an effective COVID-19 response

We take it for granted now. But during the onset of the pandemic, neither HHS nor CDC had a centralized data ecosystem for housing, sharing, parsing, and analyzing COVID-19 data from across the U.S. – including metrics on national cases, testing, hospital admissions, deaths, and vaccine development and distribution.

This was a critical need and the government moved fast. In April 2020, HHS stood up HHS Protect – a common operating picture for COVID-19 – in less than two weeks.

Built on Palantir, HHS Protect is a central hub that collects, integrates, and shares COVID-19 data from more than 300 sources in near-real time across federal agencies and with state, local, territorial, and tribal partners.

HHS Protect was and continues to be critical in informing pandemic response and raising public awareness (both The Washington Post and The New York Times use the data to inform their COVID-19 trackers).

Handing off HHS Protect to CDC: Helping leaders and teams navigate change

In a bid to stabilize pandemic data systems, in late 2021, the Biden administration made the decision to move the system and custody of the data from HHS to the CDC. And that’s where Macro stepped in.

System migrations are challenging at the best of times, especially when so much data collection and management is involved.

Throughout the development of HHS Protect, the sensitivity and validity of CDC data was constantly under question. CDC, rightly, wanted to make the system perfect and ensure absolute accuracy and integrity of the data they published regarding COVID-19. But perfection couldn’t keep pace with the demand and Mother Nature. HHS recognized this and had built a crowdsourced, “self-correcting machine” based on the principle that it’s more important that daily reporting is 90-99% of the way there and accept course correction as a way of life.

Macro Solutions was there to help CDC comfortably embrace this ethos. In addition to supporting migration of the mechanics and functionality of HHS Protect, we helped CDC pivot from legacy data governance approaches that were slow and cumbersome. Working on the frontlines with hundreds of government personnel and the contractor community, Macro Solutions drew on our deep experience in data management and Agile methodologies to help guide CDC towards Agile data processes that meet the needs of the greater HHS Protect ecosystem.

It’s a mindset that accepts that if the data is “good enough, but not perfect” one day, that’s ok. Any data or anomalies will be fixed within hours or days. For example, certain counties don’t report with the same frequency, skewing local and national reporting. But eventually the data catches up and HHS Protect automatically self-corrects.

Behind every mission, there are also amazing people

HHS Protect is now comfortably under the stewardship of CDC and represents a massive learning curve for both the federal government and those of us who privileged to have been part of such a mission-critical project.

The takeaways are many. But key among them is the impressive group of people we got to work with – especially tenured government employees. They are an amazingly adept and open group of people who had no time for silos or turf wars. They also worked unbelievably long hours and invested themselves personally in the success of the transition. It was impressive.

My great hope is that such efforts become lore in the U.S. government and lessons learned – including best practices in data collection, data integrity, data management within an Agile organization – are applied to future data initiatives.

The HHS Protect hand-off to CDC is just one of many examples of Macro’s data management and agility work with HHS. Although not as visible as COVID programs, they are no less important. Read more about them here.