A growing amount of research at Texas A&M University—such as tracking public health threats, planning transportation infrastructure and preparing for natural disasters—relies on data containing sensitive information. Researchers working with such data must follow special procedures to ensure that sensitive or proprietary information stays strictly confidential. This includes additional computing resources, protocols, and effort to ensure compliance with legal requirements for maintaining confidentiality. This is referred to as secure and compliant computing. However, Texas A&M does not currently have a standardized or convenient way for researchers to effectively work with sensitive data.
To address this shortcoming, the Texas A&M School of Public Health, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES), the Texas Federal Statistical Research Data Center (RDC), the Texas A&M High Performance Research Computing (HPRC) and several other groups affiliated with the university are coming together to build a secure and compliant computing environment that enables researchers in public health, engineering, medicine, and many other fields to work with restricted-access data from a variety of sources while fully protecting privacy. Dr. Hye-Chung Kum, associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the School of Public Health with joint appointments in the departments of Computer Science & Engineering and Industrial Systems & Engineering, is the lead investigator of a new $1.4 million dollar Research Development Fund (RDF) known as the Texas Virtual Data Library (Tx-ViDaL). Texas A&M University, Texas A&M Health Science Center, Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station and Texas A&M AgriLife Research developed the RDF to be utilized for strategic investments that support the total Texas A&M research enterprise and catalyze new ventures such as in areas of core research facilities and equipment and their initial operation. Dr. Kum is joined by Texas A&M colleagues Drs. Honggao Liu, Mark Fosset, and Mark Lawley, on the management team guiding this process.
The confidentiality of sensitive data such as information about personal medical conditions and proprietary company information must be protected through security measures ranging from using special software to placing computers in a locked room off the internet. Additionally, researchers using such data must meet all relevant legal requirements like HIPAA, Texas HB 300, FERPA, and keep up-to-date on changes to these requirements. These steps are crucial, but they add extra time and cost burdens to researchers.
“The Tx-ViDaL project aims to address these issues by building a secure and compliant cloud-based computing infrastructure using virtual machines,” Dr. Kum said. “A virtualized cloud-based setup means that researchers using Tx-ViDaL will have remote access to the secure high-performance computing resources they need without the additional work of setting up computing environments or additional cost of purchasing hardware and software or subscribing to commercial cloud-based systems.”
In addition, Tx-ViDaL aims to streamline the data governance and compliance process at Texas A&M University by coordinating and clarifying the business process for getting approvals from the different components required for research.
In addition to providing researchers with a secure and compliant computing environment, the Tx-ViDaL project aims to facilitate interdisciplinary research by providing a common workspace. It will also bring together many of the disparate data sources that researchers need to conduct their studies. Often, research involves combining data from several different sources, which means paying for access to data and processing datasets to ensure they are compatible with one another. Providing a ready-made computing system and data sources that have already been processed will give Texas A&M researchers an advantage, especially during the unfunded preliminary research stages that involve exploratory analysis to refine questions and research methods in order to write competitive research proposals.
Tx-ViDaL will grow the resources made available by the Texas A&M High Performance Research Computing group to serve a larger researcher user base ensuring fully compliant secure access to data under conditions that are more convenient for researchers. Tx-ViDaL’s data and computing resources will also help researchers in different areas and units work together more effectively by reducing redundancy and improving infrastructure to facilitate efficient collaboration.
“Handling sensitive data is an ever-larger part of many research disciplines and ensuring the data stay secure and confidential is vital. The progress made and lessons learned through this project will likely lead to further research and improvements in the secure and compliant computing field. The Tx-ViDaL project sets an ambitious but reachable goal that will help Texas A&M researchers in many different fields stay competitive,” said Dr. Kum.