It all comes full circle. A year ago, I had the pleasure of meeting one of the smartest people in the healthcare space at the party W2O hosts every year at SXSW. This woman’s name is Mona Siddiqui and she is the Chief Data Officer for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Fast forward to March of 2019, I had the amazing opportunity of sitting down with Mona to talk about her past, present and future. For those that weren’t fortunate enough to see our session, here is a “cheat sheet” from our engaging fireside chat.

Jennifer: Weve heard so much talk about data and AI, not only at SXSW, but specifically as it relates to healthcare. How do you see data and AI evolving?

Mona: Often times there are a lot of buzzwords and hand waving associated with data and AI, but to truly utilize and leverage these tools takes a lot of work. My job at HHS is to build the necessary foundation. Data can have a profound impact on patients that need our help. One practical use of artificial intelligence or AI is to help us process Petabytes of data so that we can inform projects and programs more effectively and ultimately impact people’s lives at scale.

Jennifer: The title of our fireside chat was Real Talk, Real Life and How the Federal Government is Applying Data to Solve Real World Problems. Can you expand on how the government is leveraging data to solve for current issues? 

Mona: Just a little over one year ago, HHS held the HHS Opioid Code-a-thon, a challenge competition to develop data-driven solutions to address the opioid overdose epidemic. Today, born from a winning solution at the Code-a-Thon, a new feature on Google Maps will make it easier to find drug disposal sites for unused prescription drugs.

Jennifer: As were exploring this idea of leveraging robust data, what is HHS approach to data sharing?

Mona: Part of the challenge that we’re facing internally is, how do we talk about using data internally that we’re not really using for public use or even public reporting, but that we need to use to understand the scope of a problem. The federal government has taken a specific approach to this challenge: individual privacy is paramount. In the broader industry, data is getting used in many different ways, where the individual has no control, no transparency, and really no recourse to be able to address how their information is going to be used.

Jennifer: Switching gears, Id like to talk about innovation. For some, innovation and the federal government dont go hand and hand. Youve been in government for quite some time, can you share some innovations that may surprise people?

Mona: All of the things that we do that are really, really innovative. The former team that I was a part of, the social and behavioral sciences team, we did some incredibly impactful large-scale testing within federal government programs. The innovation work at CMS, creating this new approach to data-driven policy, are all rich the pockets of innovation that happen throughout HHS.

Jennifer: Can you share a particular innovative initiative or project that has come from HHS?

Mona: The Kidney X project is a perfect case study. Our team noticed a failure in the market and knew we could utilize our resources to make a real difference. 1% of the federal budget, which is more than NASAs annual budget is allocated to dialysis. We can use the COMPETES Act to use prizes and challenges to enter into public and private collaborations that stimulate real innovation. In the future, as soon as two years from now, there will be other areas like this, which is incredibly exciting.

Jennifer: This has been a truly insightful conversation, I appreciate your time. Before I let you go, one fun question: what advice would you give your 12-year-old self?

Mona: Follow your own internal voice and dont be afraid to take many more risks. 

Thank you, Mona. It was a true pleasure sitting down with you. I wish you much success and thank you for helping to make America a healthier place!