FedScoop » News http://fedscoop.com Federal technology news and events Fri, 25 Jul 2014 20:44:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Education Department releases student data guidance http://fedscoop.com/education-department-releases-student-data-guidance/ http://fedscoop.com/education-department-releases-student-data-guidance/#comments Fri, 25 Jul 2014 20:44:34 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=61557 The Education Department released guidance for school districts Friday on how to keep parents and students informed about what student data is being collected and how it is being used.

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The Education Department released guidance for school districts Friday on how to keep parents and students informed about what student data is being collected and how it is being used.

The department also announced a new website from its Family Policy Compliance Office that includes resources and information regarding the federal laws put in place to secure the privacy of public school students.

“Now more than ever, schools need data to monitor academic progress and develop successful teaching strategies,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. “At the same time, parents need assurance that their children’s personal information is being used responsibly. This guidance helps schools strike a balance between the two.”

To enhance the site, the department plans to post decision letters on prior complaints from FPCO, which administers the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The website will also feature an online “community of practice” for school officials to share best practices, information, templates and other resources.

The guidance from the department also calls on school districts to make more information about their student data policies clear and easy to find on a public website.

The announcement comes as education institutions are collecting more and more data on students, particularly through the use of education technology learning tools. Educators have data on students in a variety of areas, including test scores, grades, credits earned and other related information, such as demographics, enrollment, discipline and special education status.

Education agencies use this information to identify student talents and special requirements, check academic progress and develop successful learning plans.

The guidance encourages schools and districts to take a hands-on approach in communicating with parents to help alleviate confusion and misunderstandings about the use of student records.

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Census looks to improve website, increase digital presence http://fedscoop.com/census-looks-improve-website-increase-digital-presence/ http://fedscoop.com/census-looks-improve-website-increase-digital-presence/#comments Fri, 25 Jul 2014 18:45:17 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=61545 Two months after rolling out a new website to make data more accessible, the U.S. Census Bureau is continuing to revamp its online presence.

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Two months after rolling out a new website to make data more accessible, the U.S. Census Bureau is continuing to revamp its online presence. 

According to a request for information posting on FedBizOpps.gov, the bureau is looking to increase public awareness of its website, census.gov, and improve the site’s search and navigation functions. “The agency seeks to help increase access to, interest in, and use of Census Bureau data products by the general public by utilizing a theme-based approach, instead of the current survey-specific reporting structure currently in use,” the RFI stated.

Under a theme-based approach, a census.gov website user would be able to access data and information under certain categories. For instance, a user would be able to look at all health care or education data in one place. 

The RFI asks for information about a potential contract that would be part of the agency’s digital transformation program, which is designed to increase access to Census Bureau statistics, customer satisfaction and increase awareness of the agency by building its audience. 

Census.gov

Census.gov

The agency also has plans to improve the content management system, content migration and search platform on its website, according to the RFI posting. 

The bureau launched its new website in May, focusing on interactive design and theme-based data browsing as well as an improved search platform. The changes to the website’s search platform were announced with the website, but the platform did not roll out with the initial redesign. 

The search function will include the North American Industry Classification System codes, or standards used by federal statistical agencies to classify business establishments. 

“Our goal has always been to democratize the statistics we produce and to put them directly in the hands of the American people to make decisions based on accurate and factual data,” Census Bureau Director John H. Thompson said in a statement. “The tools we use have changed over the years, and this redesigned website is our latest innovation to give statistical information we collect from the people, back to the people.”

The Census Bureau declined to comment on its RFI.

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City governments tackling problems with tailored CityNext services http://fedscoop.com/city-governments-tackling-unique-problems-tailored-citynext-services/ http://fedscoop.com/city-governments-tackling-unique-problems-tailored-citynext-services/#comments Fri, 25 Jul 2014 17:12:51 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=61511 Technocrat talks to Laura Ipsen, Microsoft's corporate vice president of the worldwide public sector, about how the company is helping city governments tackle unique problems with tailored Microsoft CityNext services.

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Over the past two decades I’ve covered government from every angle — or so I thought. I’ve written about innovative programs being conducted at the federal, state and county levels and even worked with a few tribal governments out west. But oddly enough, I’ve not had much contact with city governments, though I suspect that will start to change as cities around the world rise to prominence and swell in population.

Cities continue to grow, giving city governments both unique challenges and opportunities not normally faced at the state or federal level.

Cities continue to grow, giving city governments both unique challenges and opportunities not normally faced at the state or federal level.

Microsoft has a program called CityNext aimed at helping city governments tackle problems associated with urban municipalities. In a recently published blog post, Laura Ipsen, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of the worldwide public sector, revealed an infographic that shows how the perspectives of city governments differ from their state or county counterparts.

The world’s population is expected to reach 9.3 billion in 2050, with 6.3 billion of those people living in a city or urban environment. That figure will account for 67 percent of the population of the entire world. This city-building and city-growing trend is greater outside of the U.S., with 70 percent of the population of Europe living in urban areas right now and 1.1 billion people in Asia already calling a city home.

But nowhere are the concerns of city government more prominent than in Buenos Aires, where many aspects of the CityNext program were launched last year. The city stands out in that it has three million residents and an equal number of people who journey into the city to work or play at various times during the week. So you have a city that more or less doubles in population between the hours of nine and five each day. Trying to provide normal transportation and public safety services and even things like garbage collection is complicated by having to serve two groups: the residents and the visitors. Given that each group is comprised of millions of people complicates things quite a bit. I don’t think any state or county government experiences quite the same daily shift in population as a city like Buenos Aires.

The CityNext program apparently helps out quite a bit. Leveraging the cloud for storage and processing power, the program provides things like a dashboard view of all city services so that officials can ramp up areas that need help or more resources right away. Citizens can also use the service to check on city projects or the status of their applications for various city services.

I tracked down Ipsen and asked her some questions about the CityNext program in Buenos Aires and how it could be deployed to other cities with similar needs.

Technocrat: Was Buenos Aires the first city to deploy Microsoft CityNext? Are there others?

Ipsen: Buenos Aires was one of the seven visionary cities we worked with when Microsoft CityNext was launched last year. It has been hugely satisfying to see Microsoft CityNext act as the bridge that allows cities like Buenos Aires to transform. With a successful and impactful year beyond us, there are now many other cities across the globe that are taking advantage of the Microsoft CityNext initiative including the cities of New York, Paris, Auckland, Seattle and Barcelona, among others.

Technocrat: What are the components of the Microsoft CityNext program, and how can it make life better for citizens and make government more efficient?

Ipsen: Microsoft CityNext is a global, people-first initiative that is helping governments, businesses and citizens create healthier, greener, safer, more successful places to live. Through the initiative, Microsoft is leveraging its vast partner network with established relationships around the globe to empower cities to make the most of existing investments and find the right combination of solutions, apps and programs to transform infrastructure and operations; engage citizens and businesses; and accelerate local innovation and opportunity.

Technocrat: One of the components that the government officials in Buenos Aires seemed to really like about CityNext was the dashboard view of city services. How do they work?

Ipsen: City Dashboard uses Microsoft’s SQL server to pull data from multiple government applications into a consolidated dashboard that city managers can use to easily monitor projects and programs. In Buenos Aires, the city government is a huge employer with more than 100,000 employees. Managing such a large organization is no easy task, and city administrators need access to information from a wide range of sources to have a chance of success.

Working with local IT consultant Hexacta, the city created the City Dashboard drawing on multiple data sources — such as [customer relationship management] and project management tools, social streams and environmental data — to create a platform from which to manage and visualize data. The dashboard is built on top of SUACI, a citizen services portal from Hexacta. Using Microsoft SharePoint 2012, the dashboard incorporates Microsoft Excel with the Power Map and PowerPivot add-ins to dynamically visualize data. The system runs on Microsoft SQL Server 2012 database software, with SQL Server Analysis Services 2012.

The real-time data capabilities help the city to efficiently and effectively monitor projects and make informed decision as quickly as possible.

Technocrat: One of the coolest things I saw that I wish we had around here in the United States was the City Phone app. It looked like people could use that to get around their city, for free in some cases. How does that work?

Ipsen: Every city leader wants to grow the economy, but with urbanization and less resources, city leaders are looking for ways to do more with less. When we launched Microsoft CityNext one year ago, we extended the conversation around smart cities beyond infrastructure to engage cities’ most important resource — its citizens. City Phone is a wonderful example of this.

To ensure that commuters can get to work on time and visitors can enjoy everything the city has to offer, the Buenos Aires government partnered with mobile communications expert Kwan to create City Phone. It’s a Windows Phone that is pre-loaded with custom applications. Two great apps on the City Phone that make citizens’ lives easier are BA Móvil and BA Como Llego, which provide up-to the-minute information about traffic, parking and public transport options in Buenos Aires. Citizens can customize the apps to receive different notifications — for example, on traffic conditions in the morning — or use them to establish a viable route during the day.

Nokia Lumia was selected for the launch of City Phone in December 2013, and since then, there has been a 245 percent increase in app downloads. There are great stories from Buenos Aires citizens on how these apps have made their lives easier. For example, one citizen used to park in the office garage, and the last part of his drive was always severely congested. By using BA Móvil, he located a free city-run bicycle lending station 20 blocks from the office. He now parks there and bikes the rest of the way, which saves him a lot of time.

Technocrat: I bet he’s a lot healthier too. The other interesting thing was the incorporation of the youth program. A lot of kids live in cities. How can CityNext help them?

Ipsen: Taking a people-first approach, Buenos Aires recognizes the importance of supporting and engaging its young people and new businesses in order to give them the tools and skills they need to succeed. Young people are the future of our cities, and the city wanted to ensure that its young people were best prepared to succeed in the modern world.

As a participant in the Microsoft YouthSpark program, Buenos Aires is part of a broad citizenship initiative that helps young people through skills training, education and employment guidance. This isn’t just about giving them tools but showing them how to use them with ultimate goal of empowering them to reach their own ambitions and accelerate the growth of the city.

Another powerful example of working with young people is the Ministry of Modernization’s Young Professionals Program, which was created to give outstanding graduates the opportunity to work in a variety of government departments. Working on numerous projects and gaining valuable experiences, the graduates ultimately have the opportunity to lead a new successful project.

As part of Microsoft CityNext, Buenos Aires also worked with Microsoft BizSpark to offer newly created software companies access to software tools and to help connect them with valuable contacts in the industry to help further their businesses – all for free.

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Army explores 3-D printed food and pocket drones http://fedscoop.com/army-pushes-innovative-limits-3-d-printed-food-pocket-drones/ http://fedscoop.com/army-pushes-innovative-limits-3-d-printed-food-pocket-drones/#comments Fri, 25 Jul 2014 16:47:49 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=61528 The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Massachusetts, announced this week it is studying ways to leverage 3-D printing technology to deliver food to soldiers and developing pocket drones to spot enemies in combat situations. Both efforts, researchers said, represent leading-edge forays into bettering soldiers' effectiveness and well-being.

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A soldier holds the Prox Dynamics' PD-100 Black Hornet, a palm-sized miniature helicopter weighing only 16 grams. (credit: Army)

A soldier holds the Prox Dynamics’ PD-100 Black Hornet, a palm-sized miniature helicopter weighing only 16 grams. (Photo: Army)

Army researchers are focusing on two emerging technologies to rethink the way soldiers get their daily chow and how to keep them from blindly turning around the wrong corner during a firefight.

The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Massachusetts, announced this week it is studying ways to leverage 3-D printing technology to deliver food to soldiers and developing pocket drones to spot enemies in combat situations. Both efforts, researchers said, represent leading-edge forays into bettering soldiers’ effectiveness and well-being.

Lauren Oleksyk, a food technologist leading the Army research team within the Combat Feeding Directorate, said 3-D printing food is revolutionary but not unheard of in the culinary world.

“Printing of food is definitely a burgeoning science,” Oleksyk said in a news release. “It’s currently being done with limited application. People are 3-D printing food. In the confectionery industry, they are printing candies and chocolates. Some companies are actually considering 3-D printing meat or meat alternatives based on plant products that contain the protein found in meat.”

For the Army, however, she said this is the first venture into this novel method of food production. Her unit recently visited with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory to discuss using the technology to make rations for soldiers.

“It could reduce costs because it could eventually be used to print food on demand,” said Mary Scerra, a food technologist on Oleksyk’s team. “For example, you would like a sandwich, where I would like ravioli. You would print what you want and eliminate wasted food.”

In its current form, 3-D printed food begins as a paste deployed through the printer connected to computer software. While an exact replica — either in taste or texture — of food items aren’t yet achievable, Oleksyk said the hope is the technology could provide nutrient-dense rations when needed on or near the battlefield to fit soldiers’ dietary needs.

“If you are lacking in a nutrient, you could add that nutrient,” she said. “If you were lacking protein, you could add meat to a pizza.”

Likewise, Natick researchers are also thinking of the soldiers after they’re full and healthy and called into battle. Focusing on a scenario where an individual solider is engaged in combat and poking his or her head around a corner is a risk, researchers in the Cargo Pocket Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance program are developing pocket-size drones to identify enemies and keep the soldier safe behind cover.

While larger drone devices have been used on the battlefield for different purposes over the past decade, Natick said the Prox Dynamics’ PD-100 Black Hornet, which is the size of soldier’s palm, is the first to deliver to an individual’s or squad’s needs.

“The Cargo Pocket ISR is a true example of an applied systems approach for developing new Soldier capabilities,” Dr. Laurel Allender, acting NSRDEC technical director, said in a statement. “It provides an integrated capability for the Soldier and small unit for increased situational awareness and understanding with negligible impact on Soldier load and agility.”

So, a solider entering a building with an unknown floor plan or holed up behind cover with no idea where enemy fire is coming from can identify danger in the nearby environment without risking injury or worse.

Researchers say more work still needs to be done before the pocket-drones will hit the battlefield. The devices need to be made compatible with Army communication standards and enhanced for better image capturing quality in adverse conditions, such as at night. In November, Natick researchers will take part in the Army Capabilities Integration Center’s Manned Unmanned Teaming (Ground) Limited Objective Experiment to showcase their development.

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NASA wants help downloading data from Mars http://fedscoop.com/nasa-mars-rover-data-rfi/ http://fedscoop.com/nasa-mars-rover-data-rfi/#comments Fri, 25 Jul 2014 16:33:17 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=61530 The communications infrastructure that links NASA's Mars robots and satellites to earth is aging and by 2020 may not be fully capable of supporting the agency's mission. In order to keep scientific discoveries coming from the red planet, NASA is exploring commercial options to own and operate critical data relay orbiters.

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Mars Rover

NASA is looking for information that would allow it to maintain communication with its Mars rover. (Graphic Courtesy of NASA)

The communications infrastructure that links NASA’s Mars robots and satellites to earth is aging and by 2020 may not be fully capable of supporting the agency’s mission. In order to keep scientific discoveries coming from the red planet, NASA is exploring commercial options to own and operate critical data relay orbiters.

NASA issued a request for information July 23 to commercial space companies to see if they can help the agency build a cost-effective data relay infrastructure that will allow it to maintain communication with its Mars-based missions.

Currently, Mars landers and rovers are severely constrained by mass and volume, which limits the amount of data that can be transmitted. NASA has been using two satellites — the Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter — to transmit data to and from the Mars Rover. Another probe to be launched later this year — the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) — will give NASA another option, but it expects a “communications gap” in the 2020s.

In the RFI, NASA said it is willing to consider “alternative methods” for data relay, but it wants it done cheaply.

“NASA encourages innovative ideas for cost-effective approaches that provide backward-compatible UHF relay services for existing landers, as well as significantly improved performance for future exploration activities.”

NASA is also looking at other ways to transmit data besides radio waves, including its Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) program, which transmits data through lasers. In a 2013 test of that program, download speeds between the moon and Earth reached 622 megabits per second.

Responses are due by August 25.

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Mobility leaders say mobile-hesitant leadership is hindering federal recruitment http://fedscoop.com/mobile-work-exchange/ http://fedscoop.com/mobile-work-exchange/#comments Thu, 24 Jul 2014 22:06:59 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=61468 A recent study from the Mobile Work Exchange reported potential governmentwide savings of $60 million in work continuity during disruptive weather and $15.1 billion per year in real estate reduction, both of which come from implementing a more robust telework and mobility policy. But for some trail blazers making federal government more mobile, the biggest concern isn't the money but instead losing out to the competition in attracting a talented workforce for the future.

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A recent study from the Mobile Work Exchange reported potential governmentwide savings of $60 million in work continuity during disruptive weather and $15.1 billion per year in real estate reduction, both of which come from implementing a more robust telework and mobility policy. But for some mobility trail blazers in government, the biggest concern isn’t the money but instead losing out to the competition in attracting a talented workforce for the future.

Rick Walsh, the mobility lead in the U.S. Army’s Office of the Chief Information Officer, described how the wrong technology in the hands of a recruiter can be all it takes to miss out on a stellar candidate.

“The Army is in a position where we’re having to compete for the premiere candidates,” Walsh said, speaking Thursday during a webinar focused on the mobility study and the nature of high school recruiting fairs. “When my recruiter sits down with a Palm Pilot or an old laptop, the young men and women are walking right past our space.”

Walsh’s fellow panelists — Doug Bourgeois, vice president of end user computing for the public sector at VMware and former CIO of U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and Bill Powers, senior advisor for mobility work programs at the National Protection and Programs Directorate — agreed, emphasizing that for the new generation of workers entering federal government, advanced technology and a mobile lifestyle is second nature.

“It really boils down to the expectations of the employees themselves,” Bourgeois said, referencing his experience transitioning USPTO to a mobile agency. “For instance, college graduates continue to enter the workforce, and they don’t just expect access to these devices and a mobile environment — it’s really all they know. The government really needs to embrace mobile technologies” to compete, or this next generation is going to continue to “shy away” from joining the federal workforce, he said.

Of course, the new workers are only part of the equation, and convincing experienced leadership to take a risk on the change is often a difficult task without “hard savings,” which Walsh said he is struggling with in the Army. Though he’s made the argument how keeping workers away from the office one day a week can equate to millions in savings yearly, he said his branch wants something more quantifiable.

“The Army and the [Defense Department] want hard savings,” he said. “I need to reduce my costs with tangible, hard reductions. The real bang for investment is really showing leadership that these devices work.”

Powers, a firm believer that mobility and telework will produce strong returns on investment even if not right away, said improved work-life balance and employee well-being through the transformation will “parlay into cost reduction through employee retention.” His work with a mobility return-on-investment calculator predicts huge cost reductions in things like utilities, real estate and travel, as well as other long-term but less-tangible savings. And aside from attracting a young, mobile-minded workforce, Powers said that through mobility, “we no longer are strapped to a geographical area and can hire from a more talented work pool.”

Still, while budgetary concerns and security are issues in the transition, the biggest hurdle to overcome is “the buy-in and support from the top, because it represents change,” Bourgeois said. As he pointed out, the culture is not yet there: Though about 50 percent of the federal workforce is eligible to telework, few do because of management concerns.

The supporting evidence begs for increased federal mobility. Moderator Mika Cross, a presidential management council fellow for workplace transformation strategy, made several points throughout the webinar that make it hard to argue against a mobile workforce. By 2015, she said, there will be nearly 14 billion mobile devices used around the world, roughly two per person. Also, in the mobility study, about 70 percent of responding agencies said they’ve already seen returns on their investments in mobility; of those who didn’t, more than half expected to see them in the next three years. Lastly, and perhaps the biggest testament to the mobile movement, Cross said the highest rated places to work in the federal government are also coincidentally high adopters of mobility practices.

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Problem IT threatens progress at Social Security Administration http://fedscoop.com/problem-project-threatens-progress-social-security-administration/ http://fedscoop.com/problem-project-threatens-progress-social-security-administration/#comments Thu, 24 Jul 2014 21:57:06 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=61482 After more than $280 million spent over six years on an IT project that has yet to be completed, two recent studies have said the Social Security Administration's faltering IT investments could jeopardize future modernization efforts.

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After more than $280 million spent over six years on an IT project that has yet to be completed, two recent studies argue the Social Security Administration’s faltering IT investments could jeopardize future modernization efforts.

A July 2014 report from the National Academy of Public Administration said the agency must plan strategically in order to make investments necessary for “critical missions” in the future.

Likewise, an internal agency report conducted by McKinsey and Co., a management consulting firm, said the nearly $300 million investment to replace outdated computer systems was supposed to be finished by 2011 at the latest. However, the project is still not complete. 

The program, called the Disability Case Processing System, or DCPS, was designed to improve case processing and enhance customer service. But six years and $288 million later the program has “delivered limited functionality and faced schedule delays as well as increasing stakeholder concerns,” the McKinsey report said.

The flawed implementation and development of the massive IT project has caused the agency’s leadership to reset the program in order to increase the likelihood of successful delivery, according to the McKinsey report.

“After reviewing our project management approach, they concluded that DCPS represented a significant opportunity for SSA to improve case processing quality, enhance customer service, and reduce administrative costs,” SSA spokesman William Jarrett said in an email to FedScoop. “The McKinsey & Company report also highlights a number of program strengths as well as several priority risks.”

And although the agency faces some adversity in the implementation of DCPS, it remains committed to delivering the initiative successfully.

“Social Security is committed to implementing the assessment recommendations and are confident we will deliver this vital initiative successfully,” Jarrett said.

Obtained from “whistleblowers” by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the 68-page report said the agency should appoint a single executive to be accountable for the project and to centralize the management of the program. The report also calls on the agency to evaluate the “next best” alternative to ensure the path forward. 

SSA DCPS Value Assurance

According to a chart from the McKinsey report, DCPS scored below average on the value assurance index. Source: McKinsey Report, obtained by House Oversight Committee

Right now, according to the McKinsey report, DCPS scores below average in the value assurance index, which is used to measure the success factors of a project. 

Even though the McKinsey report was released only a month ago, Jarrett said the agency has embraced the report’s recommendations and taken definitive steps to strengthen the program.

“We appointed a single, accountable, program executive with full authority needed to manage the program and are establishing an integrated program team,” Jarrett said. “We also will refresh requirements, strengthen vendor management, update our cost-benefit analysis and adopt a more agile approach to program development.”

The NAPA report, which was requested by Congress, studied the current capabilities and performance of the SSA in electronic service delivery, investment in automation and information technology, workforce capacity, organizational structure and physical infrastructure. 

NAPA recommended that the agency improve operational efficiency by embracing technology to allow improved communications with its customers. Despite recommending an increase in the use of communication technology, the report also says the agency should continue to provide traditional in-person delivery to provide direct assistance. 

The review called for “aggressive adoption” of technology solutions in order to improve customer service and increase usability. In addition, NAPA suggested the agency prepare for the challenges it doesn’t know it will face yet by becoming more flexible and improving data access.

“While these changes will not come easily, the panel believes that SSA can do what needs to be done with the support of Congress and its stakeholders,” the report said. “SSA has a track record of meeting extraordinary challenges effectively. This is a reason why Congress has often provided it with additional responsibilities, such as eligibility determination and income verification, which SSA has performed with great success.”

The McKinsey report has caused the House Oversight Committee to look into the program. According to a release from the committee’s press office, lawmakers are is looking into whether SSA officials attempted to hide the report from the public. 

In a letter to acting SSA Commissioner Carolyn Colvin, Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and James Lankford, R-Okla., called the project a “boondoggle” and requested all documents and communications about the DCPS project since March 1. 

“The DCPS project is adrift, the scope of the project is ambiguous, the project has been poorly executed, and the project’s development lacks leadership,” the lawmakers said in the letter.

When FedScoop reached out to SSA for comment, William “BJ” Jarrett, the agency’s spokesperson, said they had just received the NAPA report and have not had an opportunity to review and respond to the findings of the report.

We will look at what NAPA proposes and consider their feedback as we move forward to develop our long-range strategic vision, which we plan to publish in October,” Jarrett told FedScoop. “The agency will engage broadly with internal and external stakeholders, including Social Security employees, labor organizations, management associations, the Social Security Advisory Board, members of Congress and their staffs, advocates, and—most important—the public we serve, as we develop our vision.”

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Credible intelligence behind TSA policy change on electronics http://fedscoop.com/credible-intelligence-behind-tsa-policy-change-electronics/ http://fedscoop.com/credible-intelligence-behind-tsa-policy-change-electronics/#comments Thu, 24 Jul 2014 21:54:43 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=61466 The director of TSA acknowledged Thursday the existence of credible intelligence that led the agency July 2 to require passengers at certain overseas airports to power on their electronics devices before boarding direct flights to the United States.

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The director of the Transportation Security Administration acknowledged Thursday the existence of credible intelligence that led the agency July 2 to require passengers at certain overseas airports to power on their electronics devices before boarding direct flights to the United States.

Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, TSA Administrator John Pistole said U.S. intelligence agencies are working under the assumption that known al-Qaida chief bomb maker Ibrahim al-Asiri, has trained other terrorists to conceal non-metallic explosives in electronic devices. During his presentation, Pistole referred to a slide showing laptop computers and a digital camera that had hollowed-out sections containing non-metallic explosives.

“That I see as a clear and present danger that has not been mitigated to our satisfaction,” Pistole said, adding that the policy requiring some travelers to turn on their computers and devices will remain in place as long as the intelligence supports the threat. “The non-metallic [improvised explosive device] is our top threat.”

Laptop at airportMeanwhile, as the world continues to focus its attention on the attack of a commercial airliner by Russian separatists in Eastern Urkaine and a recent decision by the Federal Aviation Administration to suspend flights into Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv because of the threat of missile attacks, Pistole acknowledged that some overseas airports that operate direct flights to the U.S. have not done a thorough enough threat assessment of the local threat from man-portable anti-air missiles. Part of that assessment, Pistole said, involves ensuring fencing and intrusion detection systems, such as networked security cameras, are in place. He declined to name those airports.

TSA has undergone a major transformation under Pistole’s leadership, shifting from a lumbering agency seen as incapable of responding to new threats with speed and agility to an intelligence-driven organization that has turned its attention to the promise of big data being able to help it focus its limited resources on the passengers that pose the biggest threat to airline security. The public face of TSA’s big data approach to risk management is the agency’s Pre-Check program, which provides expedited screening to travelers who undergo a TSA background check.

Of the more than 2 million people that undergo TSA screening every day, more than 400,000 have signed up for Pre-Check, and 118 airports now offer Pre-Check expedited boarding lanes, Pistole said. “Our sense is we can buy down the risk by expediting the screening” of people who do not pose a significant security threat. Big data can be the agency’s friend when used properly, he said, referring to the need to ensure privacy protections.

TSA is currently in discussions with private sector consortiums on leveraging third-party companies to manage the enrollment of travelers into the Pre-Check program, Pistole said. The effort would would leverage commercially available data and allow the agency to significantly expand the number of frequent fliers in the program while maintaining TSA’s overall authority to approve who gets to participate, he said.

Although Pistole said a decision on the effort may be coming soon, TSA continues to search for concepts that it deems worthy of taking to a prototyping stage.

A slide from a 2013 TSA industry day on third party screening for TSA Pre Check program.

A slide from a 2013 TSA industry day on third party screening for TSA Pre Check program. 

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Issa: FTC is overreaching on its data security protection rules http://fedscoop.com/darrell-issa-ftc-hearing-data-security/ http://fedscoop.com/darrell-issa-ftc-hearing-data-security/#comments Thu, 24 Jul 2014 19:51:05 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=61475 Darrell Issa says the FTC is going too far in cases related to data security, focusing on one case that has already been put on hold.

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Congressman Darrell Issa

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., took the Federal Trade Commission to task Thursday during a hearing that examined whether the agency was overstepping its boundaries in going after companies that have had data security breaches.

The hearing centered on a case currently being handled by the FTC, which charges an Atlanta-based cancer detection clinic, LabMD, failed to protect billing information of more than 10,000 customers. Republican committee members and the company’s CEO, Michael Daugherty, say the FTC was only alerted to this breach after cybersecurity firm Tiversa turned LabMD into the agency when it failed to pay Tiversa to fix the problem.

“All Americans should be outraged by the FTC’s unchecked ability to pursue a claim that is not based on any legal standard,” Daugherty said in his testimony before the committee. “If this can happen to LabMD, a cancer detection center, this can happen to anyone. This does nothing to help the constantly-changing cybersecurity landscape.”

Representatives from the FTC and Tiversa were not invited to attend the hearing.

Section 5 of the FTC Act states that the commission can protect against ”unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.” Despite Daugherty’s claims, Woodrow Hartzog, an assistant professor at Stanford University who specializes in data privacy, said the FTC has operated judiciously within Section 5, despite the rule’s broad scope and undefined parameters when it comes to data security.

“Overall, the overwhelming pattern is that the FTC has acted conservatively, judiciously and consistently,” Herzog told the committee.

Issa saw it differently, saying the FTC is using its “regulatory authority not to help protect consumers but in fact to get simple consent decrees using the unlimited power it has to not only sue at government expense but to force you before administrative law judges.”

The hearing itself raised some eyebrows around Washington as the LabMD case has been put on hold after lawyers revealed earlier this year that the committee was looking into an immunity deal for a Tiversa executive in exchange for his testimony. It has also been revealed that a former Issa staffer is representing LabMD in the case.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., also weighed in prior to the hearing, sending Issa a letter Wednesday blasting him for getting involved in an ongoing case.

“While Congress obviously has an important role in government oversight, I believe you have overstepped your bounds in this instance,” Rockefeller wrote. “It is not appropriate for Congress to intervene in the midst of a trial and to adversely affect its proceedings, as you have done. The inappropriate timing and nature of your investigation are buttressed by the revelation that LabMD is being represented by a former member of your committee staff. This raises the question of whether LabMD directly sought your help and intervention in the legal process rather than take the risk of losing on the merits at trial.”

There has been no announcement as to when the FTC’s trial will resume.

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Has Google made NTIS irrelevant? http://fedscoop.com/will-google-replace-ntis/ http://fedscoop.com/will-google-replace-ntis/#comments Wed, 23 Jul 2014 21:56:54 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=61419 Before there was the Internet, there was the National Technical Information Service. But now that there is an Internet with virtually unlimited storage capacity and powerful search engines, some in Congress think it might be time to delete the NTIS from the list of top-level government domains.

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National Technical Information Service Director Bruce Borzino defended the need for his agency to exist in the Google era of free search and retrieval.

National Technical Information Service Director Bruce Borzino defended the need for his agency to exist in the Google era of free search and retrieval. He testified Wednesday before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

Before there was the Internet, there was the National Technical Information Service. But now that there is an Internet with virtually unlimited storage capacity and powerful search engines, some in Congress think it might be time to delete the NTIS from the list of top-level government domains.

Founded in 1950 as part of the Commerce Department, NTIS has served as a central repository for government-funded scientific and technical reports generated by federal agencies and their contractors, as well as from a multitude of other domestic and foreign sources. The agency, which estimates its holdings at approximately 3 million documents across 350 technical and business topics, is also required to be self-sufficient. So over the course of its existence, NTIS has developed fee-based services involving the cataloguing, collecting and repackaging of documents for other federal agencies.

But now the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee wants to know what NTIS does that the likes of Google and Microsoft don’t in terms of cataloguing documents on the Internet and providing free access. In fact, lawmakers posed that question directly to NTIS Director Bruce Borzino during a hearing Wednesday about the future of NTIS and focused attention on the Let Me Google That For You Act, a bill introduced recently by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that would eliminate NTIS and save the government $50 million.

“Why would anyone buy publications from NTIS when they’re free on the Internet?” McCaskill said. “Can we as a Congress come together and cut bureaucracy when it is duplicative and unnecessary?”

As revenue for NTIS from reports and documents has declined over the past decade, it has begun offering other services to agencies for a price. NTIS offers shipping and fulfillment services, e-training services, government webhosting and other information and support services, according to the agency’s website.

During the hearing, McCaskill criticized the agency for potentially circumventing the Federal Acquisition Regulation by working with private sector entities to provide services to federal agencies. The senator also criticized NTIS for offering similar, or duplicative, services that are already offered by the General Services Administration.

“We can’t find any IT services you offer that GSA doesn’t offer,” McCaskill said.

Borzino called NTIS’s partnership with federal agencies a unique one that meets Congress and the Obama Administration’s goal of shared services.

“It’s a joint service partnership,” Borzino said. “Under the partnership program we have, we work with the partner. We provide the program management. We are in the game.”

Both Coburn and McCaskill criticized the agency for a lack of transparency about what its actual role is and directly questioned the statutory justification for the additional services NTIS now offers.

At one point during the hearing, McCaskill asked Borzino if he thought providing the Air Force cookbook through NTIS was consistent with the statutory guidelines used by President Harry. S. Truman to establish NTIS.

“The Air Force recipe cookbook was offered…at a time when DOD did not have the capabilities of making it available and there was a demand for it by the restaurant and services industry,” Borzino said. “It will not be available free.”

“Did you just say the Department of Defense didn’t have the capability of providing a cookbook?” McCaskill asked.

According to Borzino, the Pentagon at the time did not have the ability to disseminate electronic documents to the public. NTIS is now going back through its holdings to ensure it only contains scientific and technical documents, he said.

Access to the 700,000 digitized reports in the NTIS holdings is provided both through the direct sale of individual reports and by subscription to NTIS’s National Technical Reports Library. Prices for individual reports and subscriptions vary, according to a report released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office. For example, an electronic copy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Marshall Space Flight Center’s NASA Robotics for Space Exploration report can be purchased for $15, and a customized CD containing the same report can be purchased for $30.

“We’re very transparent,” Borzino said. “Please come down and look at what we’re doing. We’re not hiding anything.”

The new GAO report, however, provides evidence that supports calls to eliminate NTIS. In addition to incurring costs that exceeded revenue for 10 of the last 11 fiscal years, GAO estimated that 74 percent of the documents in the NTIS archive are available elsewhere, and of those, 95 percent are available for free.

The GSA is not the only agency McCaskill compared NTIS’s work to. The senator also questioned the need for NTIS in a world that has both the Government Printing Office and the Library of Congress.

“Why do all of you need to exist?” McCaskill said.

The question of whether or not NTIS should exist is not lost on the agency. On its website, the agency includes a disclaimer at the top of the page that informs visitors they might be able to get the same information for free from a number of different sites online.

“Before purchasing from NTIS, you may want to check for free access from (1) the issuing organization’s website; (2) the U.S. Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System website http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys; (3) the federal government Internet portal USA.gov; or (4) a web search conducted using a commercial search engine such as http://www.google.com,” the disclaimer states.

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@DanielVerton contributed to this report.

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