Call for Data Standardization: Lessons Learned and Recommendations in an Imaging Study

JCO Clin Cancer Inform. 2019 Nov;3:1-11. doi: 10.1200/CCI.19.00056.


Purpose: Data sharing creates potential cost savings, supports data aggregation, and facilitates reproducibility to ensure quality research; however, data from heterogeneous systems require retrospective harmonization. This is a major hurdle for researchers who seek to leverage existing data. Efforts focused on strategies for data interoperability largely center around the use of standards but ignore the problems of competing standards and the value of existing data. Interoperability remains reliant on retrospective harmonization. Approaches to reduce this burden are needed.

Methods: The Cancer Imaging Archive (TCIA) is an example of an imaging repository that accepts data from a diversity of sources. It contains medical images from investigators worldwide and substantial nonimage data. Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine (DICOM) standards enable querying across images, but TCIA does not enforce other standards for describing nonimage supporting data, such as treatment details and patient outcomes. In this study, we used 9 TCIA lung and brain nonimage files containing 659 fields to explore retrospective harmonization for cross-study query and aggregation. It took 329.5 hours, or 2.3 months, extended over 6 months to identify 41 overlapping fields in 3 or more files and transform 31 of them. We used the Genomic Data Commons (GDC) data elements as the target standards for harmonization.

Results: We characterized the issues and have developed recommendations for reducing the burden of retrospective harmonization. Once we harmonized the data, we also developed a Web tool to easily explore harmonized collections.

Conclusion: While prospective use of standards can support interoperability, there are issues that complicate this goal. Our work recognizes and reveals retrospective harmonization issues when trying to reuse existing data and recommends national infrastructure to address these issues.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Brain Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Brain Neoplasms / diagnostic imaging*
  • Data Curation / methods
  • Data Curation / standards*
  • Databases, Factual
  • Guidelines as Topic
  • Health Information Interoperability / standards*
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Lung Neoplasms / diagnostic imaging*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Retrospective Studies