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Suresh Soundararajan

CIO, Virginia Department of Health

Suresh Soundararajan, CIO, Virginia Department of Health
After 14 years at the Virginia Department of Health, Suresh Soundararajan became the agency’s CIO in November 2019 — one month before the first case of COVID-19 was identified in China. So immediately, Soundararajan found himself charged with helping a major public health agency respond to the worst pandemic in a century.

In the past two years, VDH has been an early mover on helpful technologies several times. It was the first agency in the commonwealth to dive into robotic process automation, using it to speed up processing of paper-based test results from laboratories. Virginia was the first state to launch a COVID-19 exposure app, using the framework built by Google and Apple.

Significantly, it also became one of the first state agencies to try out technology for monitoring the spread of misinformation and disinformation online. Though the state is no longer using the technology now that the pilot phase has concluded, it was working with AlphaVu’s AI to give risk scores to social media posts, sorting through countless online conversations looking for lies. Since those conversations influence public health, the process let the state know what it was up against.

“Initially when COVID started, the biggest thing with the first two months was major misinformation,” Soundararajan said. “Everybody’s saying different things: ‘This is going to cause that’ and ‘It’s not a big deal, whatever.’ So we wanted to see an appropriate public health message that goes out, but for that … we just have to know what the sentiment is.”

Using the technology, the state was able to understand who the target of such disinformation was and respond specifically to them with carefully crafted messaging. The usefulness and accuracy of this technology in the long term is yet to be seen, but Soundararajan and the state found it helpful. And he sees a place for it, and other new technologies in the future.

“I’ve always wanted to be that person who was thinking a few years ahead in a way to say what’s out there and where this is going to take us.”
Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.