The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has become the newest organization in a string of federal agencies to adopt cloud solutions to help manage increasing amounts of data.

The OpenFDA initiative was introduced this week and aims to use the cloud to collect, store and analyze the massive amounts of information it receives on a daily basis. The agency hopes to make its enormous data sets more easily available to scientists and application developers and has created a search-based application programming interface to share the information.

"These data sets are not only larger than ever before, they are also arriving more frequently than ever and varying enormously in format and quality," wrote FDA chief health informatics officer Taha Kass-Hout in a blog post on the agency's website. "This year alone, we expect to receive somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million submissions through our eSubmission Gateway-and some submissions can now be as large as a Terabyte (one trillion bytes) in size. This is the very definition of big data."

Making sense of big data
The FDA receives submissions from healthcare providers, manufacturers, scientists, regulatory bodies and other groups. The new program is an effort to take those submissions and turn the information within into data that can be used and shared more efficiently. The OpenFDA database offers users structured access and makes it possible to search for both structured and unstructured regulatory data.

The agency regulates everything from pharmaceuticals to dog food, and compliance guidelines for the various products require organizations to submit vast amounts of data so they can be search analyzed to find any worrisome trends from the products' development. Clinical trials for medical devices, for instance, create a deluge of information, all of which needs to be processed and made sense of. Currently, the FDA is teaming up with state and local healthcare organizations to better detect food-borne pathogen contaminants. Datasets from these studies are sequenced, stored and analyzed to gain a better understanding of the problem and help contain future outbreaks.

Healthcare cloud use increasing
A recent study by the Health Information Management Systems Society of technology used by hospital IT executives found that cloud use in healthcare is becoming much more common at all levels. Eighty-three percent of those surveyed said they used cloud technology, and half of those said they used a cloud platform to host clinical applications.

"Big data is important to the way we carry out regulatory science, which is the science of developing new tools and approaches to assess the safety, efficacy, quality and performance of FDA-regulated products," explained Kass-Hout. "Through innovative methods such as cloud computing, we are taking advantage of this flood tide of new information to continue to protect and promote the public health."

The new OpenFDA initiative follows a similar program, released earlier this month, that shares data on adverse drug effects with scientists and developers on an open-source, cloud-based platform. Big data analysis is also on the minds of the scientists at the National Institutes of Health, who recently announced an initiative to help advance biomedical research.