The Committee on Government Operations and Consumer Protection discussed proposed legislation amending the territory’s virtual data system and upon approval sent it to the Rules and Judiciary Committee Wednesday.
Bill 34-0096 would add a chapter to V.I. Code Title 3, establishing the “V.I. Virtual Information System.” Sen. Janelle Sarauw, the bill’s sponsor, said the bill would “improve the quality of life, education and health care.” Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory also sponsored the bill.
Sarauw’s bill for a “true data warehouse” would place the system under the authority of the governor of the Virgin Islands, not the Bureau of Technology where it now resides. The bill would include a number of agencies to provide information to the central database including the Departments of Education, Health, Human Services, Labor, Justice, Finance, the University of the Virgin Islands and Lutheran Social Services of the Virgin Islands. Individual and family demographics would be stored in the system for use by those agencies.
The virtual system would cost around $3 million and could receive pandemic funding according to Sarauw said. She also said the governor would appoint an executive director.
Alvincent Hutson, legal counsel for the Department of Education, which hosts the current virtual information system, said the department supports the legislature with amendments. The Education Department’s recommendations include forming a governing board or executive council and allowing the executive director to hire staff. Hutson commented that the bill falls short of identifying sustainable funding.
The current virtual information system was put in place in 2013 at a cost of around $5 million. In 2019, Education Department officials testified at a Senate hearing that there were large gaps in the data. At the same hearing, Education Commissioner Raquel Berry-Benjamin said the department would need three-quarters of a million dollars a year to carry out a renewed mandate.
Testifying in favor of the bill, Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion said she “fully supports and is excited” about the bill. She commented there should be an executive director to monitor the system.
Others sent written testimony read into the record. Noreen Michael, research director in the School of Nursing at the University of the Virgin Islands said the data system could be an important advantage for health and educational outcomes but must protect personal information. She also recommended data sharing agreements be formalized and cost and funding sources be identified.
Denise George, V.I. attorney general, also mentioned the lack of a funding source and her concern for security issues. Her written testimony pointed out that a similar system, put in place in 2013 with $4.9 million funding, lacked continuous funding and may have had problems collecting data.
Representatives from the Labor Department, the Bureau of Information Technology, Human Services and the University of the Virgin Islands also spoke in favor of the bill while expressing concerns about security.
“I would urge, if we are planning to add more personalized data to the system, then there must be a strategic investment in cyber security so the data is kept safe from those who would willingly violate individual privacy, ” David Hall, UVI president said.
Most of the senators attending the session also commented about the lack of funding and the importance of security. Sen. Milton Potter said it was a “significant concern” and was told by Rupert Ross, director of the V.I. Bureau of Information Technology, better tools and more resources would be useful for the current system.
Sen. Javan James said he “didn’t have a clue” what the system would cost and asked anyone could tell him. Hutson said some systems used elsewhere cost between two and 10 million dollars. They should plan on between one and three million dollars he said. The Education Department receives substantial discounts on software up to 40 percent, he added.
Sen Franklin Johnson asked how much a security program would cost, but Ross said he didn’t know.
Sarauw, sounding a little irritated, pointed out several paragraphs in the bill that insure personal data protection by the virtual system’s executive director. She also pointed out that the American Rescue Plan has provisions to fund cyber security.
“We have to be more creative,” she said. “We have grant money to support the data system.”
Sen. Carla Joseph, committee chair, added comments at the end of the questioning. She said it is a “critical piece of legislation” and said she had the same concerns as others regarding security.
An amendment regarding staff and budget for the virtual information system was made by Sen. Marvin Blyden who then made the motion to forward the bill to the Rules and Judiciary Committee. The motion passed unanimously.
Present at the hearing were Sens. Joseph, Sarauw, Blyden, Johnson, James, Novelle Francis, Alma Francis Heyliger, Milton Potter and Kurt Vialet, not a member of the committee.