Cloud migration made flood response quicker, Iowa health official says

The Iowa Department of Public Health's move to a cloud platform made it easier to get information to officials responding to disasters like recent flooding.
Rob Walker of the Iowa Department of Public Health speaks at the 2019 Amazon Web Services Public Sector Summit in Washington. (StateScoop)

A recent cloud migration by the Iowa Department of Public Health has made mapping and addressing health risks like infectious diseases and poor water quality easer than ever, the state’s medical data experts said on Wednesday.

The health department last year completed an update of its environmental public health tracking portal, which is used to provide information to the public that can be used to plan, identify and evaluate actions that can be used to control and prevent environmentally related diseases.

Migrating that information to a cloud platform, along with an overhaul of the the state’s public health data dashboards, which measure deaths, sexually transmitted diseases, oral health and the conditions of well water around Iowa’s 99 counties, resulted in unprecedented access and simplicity for first responders using the state’s health data maps, said Rob Walker, an epidemiologist and data scientist with the department.

Walker, speaking at the Amazon Web Services Public Sector Summit in Washington D.C., said Iowa first received funding to build a health-tracking program under a 2010 grant from the Centers for Disease Control. The state completed that platform in 2013, but Walker said that just four years later, he and his IT team were informed they had less than eight months before IDPH’s on-premises data center needed to be replaced.


Walker said the short notice necessitated a transition of all the department’s data — including birth and death records, disease investigations, immunization records, licenses of doctors, nurses, beauticians, plumbers and the location of all the radioactive material in the state — to a cloud platform. 

“A cloud-based system was looking much more feasible for a long-term solution,” Walker said.

After migrating the state’s data to AWS cloud servers and overhauling the state’s health data dashboards with the help of Tableau, a data visualization company, Walker said that mapping state health data and delivering it to first responders and technicians working in disaster areas has never been easier.

The new dashboards have proved crucial this spring after breaches of more than 60 levees flooded 145,000 acres of farmland across three counties, Walker said. Unlike the floods of 2008 and 2013, during which Iowa officials struggled to provide county officials and relief workers with accurate data on well locations, the new dashboards can be visualized in real time, allowing  Walker and the state’s response teams to identify quickly the most at-risk areas.

“IDPH has never been able to use this type of rapid data collection,” he said. “I’ve used a lot of mapping software in my day, and nothing else was that quick or easy.”


Walker was able to use a Tableau tool to exclude private water wells outside of the flooded counties to create a map of the damaged wells within minutes, he said. And, he added, the new dashboards are easy to adapt for any type of disaster, no matter how far-fetched.

“I can now access [the IDPH server] anywhere, instead of being on-[premises] at IDPH as we had to be in the past,” he said. “This allows me to be in the field as a technical advisor, in the emergency command center assisting there, or sitting at home with a margarita. This technology is transferrable, and you can use it for any disaster, not just wells. You can use it for avian flu, measles, ebola, a tornado or the zombie apocalypse.”

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