FedScoop » News http://fedscoop.com Federal technology news and events Mon, 08 Dec 2014 14:48:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 An early Christmas gift? Feds get extra day off http://fedscoop.com/early-christmas-gift-feds-get-extra-day/ http://fedscoop.com/early-christmas-gift-feds-get-extra-day/#comments Mon, 08 Dec 2014 14:44:04 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=66266 President Barack Obama signed an executive order Friday that gives federal employees the day after Christmas off.

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The White House Christmas tree. (Credit: White House)

(Credit: White House)

President Barack Obama signed an executive order Friday that gives federal employees the day after Christmas off.

“All executive branch departments and agencies of the Federal Government shall be closed and their employees excused from duty on Friday, December 26, 2014,” the order says. However, it does give the heads of agencies the right to remain open and require employees to report to work for “reasons of national security, defense, or other public need.”

It’s not the first time that the president has given feds some extra PTO during the holidays.

In 2012, Obama also gave federal employees a four-day weekend when he closed the government on Monday, Dec. 24, the day before Christmas. President George W. Bush also gave federal workers time off before and after Christmas.

On the White House’s We the People website, thousands of people signed a petition this year requesting the president give govies a four-day holiday during Christmastime. However, the petition failed to gather the 100,000 signatures it needed to receive a formal response from the president.

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FITARA: A good start, but still unfinished business http://fedscoop.com/fitara-unfinished-business/ http://fedscoop.com/fitara-unfinished-business/#comments Mon, 08 Dec 2014 13:07:12 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=66262 The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act is on its way to the Senate floor after passing the House for the fourth time as a part of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.

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Capitol

(Credit: iStockphoto.com)

The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act is on its way to the Senate floor after passing the House for the fourth time as a part of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. The momentum generated by the bill has some advocates hopeful it could act as a harbinger of further IT reform.

“The last real time we delved into [IT reform] was the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, so it’s been almost two decades,” Alan McQuinn, a research assistant at the Information Technology Innovation Foundation told FedScoop. “Obviously, the federal government and its ability to keep up with innovation has been lagging miserably behind. It’s definitely a first step, and that’s what it is, it’s a first solid step forward.”

Mike Hettinger, the former senior vice president for federal and public sector at TechAmerica, told FedScoop that the version in the NDAA is enhanced and scaled back in certain areas compared to the original early-2013 draft. However, the two major provisions regarding CIO authorities and data center consolidation from the original bill did make the final cut.

“At the end of the day, the data center provisions and the CIO authority were things that immediately, when the first draft of the legislation came out years ago, industry looked at and said ‘yeah, these are things that make sense and that we want,’” Hettinger said. “It was good to see those provisions included.”

According to Hettinger, the data center provisions build on the White House Office of Management and Budget’s 2010 Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative. Through its inclusion in the legislation, the initiative would be codified into law and last even after the current administration is out of office.

“[As executive branch actions], a lot of these things have the potential to go away,” Hettinger said. “So the data center consolidation stuff got on the right path and will make sure that [CIOs] have the authority and the mindset to do it beyond the Obama administration.”

Brocade’s Vice President of Federal, Anthony Robbins, told FedScoop that FITARA would open the door for better and stronger CIO leadership, and a more enhanced IT acquisition and procurement process.

“For the value to be extracted from the law as it gets passed, it’s going to require leadership and change management,” Robbins said. “The government is a big apparatus. Just because we pass it into law doesn’t mean that the next day all the leadership is in place and all the processes are in place and the change management agenda is known. We want to make sure the system doesn’t move slower as all these things try to get integrated into the different agencies.”

McQuinn agreed, and noted that Congress’ work is not yet finished when it comes to IT reform.

“It’s a good first step, but Congress should go beyond simply passing this,” McQuinn said. “It should start to reform our outdated ways that we hand out federal IT procurement, how they’re rewarded and give federal agencies more flexibility with purchasing software and giving out contracts.”

In the latest draft of FITARA, provisions are included for a governmentwide software licensing program — something McQuinn said could potentially make procurement and acquisition more difficult.

“The more rigid the federal government is with handing out these contracts, the less it is able to adapt in the future,” McQuinn said. “Establishing vast governmentwide standards can sometimes hurt federal agencies abilities to adapt to the future and adapt to innovation.”

Hettinger said, however, that the new momentum behind the bill and the unfinished areas of procurement, governmentwide software acquisition and strategic sourcing could actually inspire more work early on in the next Congress.

“Given the changes of leadership and everything else, and the new energy behind this, [the new Congress] will take a look at what was enacted and see what they have to do next to get federal IT to the next level,” Hettinger said. “So I imagine some of this stuff will get a second hearing and we’ll continue the discussion.”

First introduced by Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., in early 2013, the bill was designed to re-evaluate the more than $80 billion the federal government spends on IT per year through more oversight and enhanced budget authority. Now, as the bill moves closer to the president’s desk, lawmakers are celebrating the bicameral and bipartisan consensus.

“As technology changes, chief information officers were previously prevented from adopting new technologies, and often the American taxpayer missed out on more cost-effective options,” Issa said in a statement. “FITARA fixes this crisis of leadership and ensures that the contracting standard is modernized to handle a changed tech landscape.”

In a statement to FedScoop, Connolly said FITARA would be the first part of moving away from the status quo of federal IT management, while increasing the transparency of the entire process.

“FITARA will be a critical first step toward ending this unacceptable and unsustainable status quo,” Connolly said. “FITARA will also enhance transparency of IT investment performance and strengthen an IT portfolio management initiative that the Office of Management and Budget estimates has the potential to save taxpayers $2.53 billion through fiscal year 2015.”

But representatives from industry, government and think tanks said it’s clear that FITARA could be just the first step toward bringing federal IT processes to the level of the private sector.

“This is a five- or 10-year odyssey that we’re talking about,” Robbins said. “A lot of work has to be done here. The proof [of success] will be in the leadership and the ability to drive the change management agenda.”

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USAID taps former Google engineer to lead innovation lab http://fedscoop.com/usaid-taps-former-google-engineer-lead-innovation-lab/ http://fedscoop.com/usaid-taps-former-google-engineer-lead-innovation-lab/#comments Fri, 05 Dec 2014 20:01:32 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=66239 Ann Mei Chang is the latest in a growing list of former Google execs to enter government service. Chang will lead USAID's recently launched Global Development Lab.

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Ann Mei Chang is set to take over USAID's Global Development Lab. (Credit: USAID)

Ann Mei Chang is set to take over USAID’s Global Development Lab. (Credit: USAID)

The U.S. Agency for International Development has brought in former Google engineer and State Department adviser Ann Mei Chang to lead its recently launched Global Development Lab.

Chang will start as the innovation lab’s first executive director, leaving her current role as chief innovation officer with the Mercy Corps, where she focused on helping impoverished communities through the use of mobile technologies. Now she hopes to bring her decades’ worth of experience in Silicon Valley, most notably as a senior engineering director at Google Inc., to the public sector.

“The most effective solutions are those that are cross-sector solutions, because each of the sectors — whether it’s the private sector, the government, the nonprofit sector or academia — brings real distinct aspects and also limitations,” Chang said. “I think that when we can work across all these sectors, that’s when the magic happens.”

USAID’s Global Development Lab launched in April to uplift science- and technology-based development efforts, supporting solutions in water, food security and nutrition, energy, education, and climate change. Most recently, the lab assisted in the innovative response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa through its Ebola Grand Challenge, in partnership with the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Defense Department.

Chang, like many of her former Silicon Valley colleagues, will bring a novel and successful approach to innovation and how it’s conducted, focusing less on specific challenges than broader and more effective workflows that aim to make USAID successful in its mission to eliminate poverty.

“A lot of the value I can add is about approach,” she said. “Most of my time in the private sector I worked in engineering. I knew engineers who were heads down writing code and building products, not necessarily people who were working more on the business side. From that experience what I learned is the ins and outs of how innovation really works in Silicon Valley. It’s not as glamorous as many people might perceive it from the outside. A lot of innovation is just brute force, experimentation, trying different approaches, testing to see what works, taking risks and accepting failure, and coming up with what is the most effective where there can be huge improvements.”

Megan Smith, the newly appointed federal chief technology officer and former Google executive, said in a statement that Chang “will bring that style of leadership to USAID’s U.S. Global Development Lab and its partners worldwide as they support under-served communities working to solve some of the biggest challenges of our time.”

While Chang has three years of federal government experience from a previous position with the State Department, this re-entry is an opportunity to pursue her long-term plan to spend the second half of her career as a public servant, “something that felt more meaningful and where I felt like I could make a difference in helping to make the world a better place,” she said.

“I think we’re starting to see more and more of the movement with this next generation and the desire to both participate in the private sector and the excitement there but also be able to bring some of the skills and experience there to the public and social sector,” Chang said. “We’re seeing the U.S. Digital Service really focus on that, which is fairly domestically focused. It’s something I really want to encourage those who are in the technology fields to consider spending part of their career leveraging their skills, which are some of the most in-demand skills around the world right now, to contribute and make the world a better place.”

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How NIST is helping law enforcement with digital forensics http://fedscoop.com/nist-helping-law-enforcement-digital-forensics/ http://fedscoop.com/nist-helping-law-enforcement-digital-forensics/#comments Fri, 05 Dec 2014 18:42:45 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=66220 During a National Institute of Standards and Technology forensics conference Wednesday, a number of NIST scientists, engineers and program managers poured over the ways the agency is helping law enforcement enhance investigations.

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(iStock)

(Credit: iStockphoto.com)

“Digital forensics is at a time of crisis and a time of opportunity.”

This remark from Eoghan Casey, lead cybersecurity engineer at the MITRE Corp., highlighted the overarching themes presented at the first day of the National Institute of Standards and Technology forensics conference Wednesday.

Throughout the morning, a number of NIST scientists, engineers and program managers poured over the ways the agency is helping law enforcement enhance investigations tied to recovering data from digital devices or improving the accuracy of biometrics.

NSRL

One of the biggest tools NIST offers law enforcement is a vast library of computer software that allows experts to identify computer files by name, size, manufacturer and cryptologic hashes. Known as the National Software Reference Library, the database has information on a massive amount of software, ranging from mainstream operating systems and Web browsers like Microsoft Windows and Google Chrome to enterprise software from IBM and Oracle and classic PC games like Wolfenstein 3D and Duke Nukem Forever.

Doug White, a computer scientist at NIST, explained how this library serves as a way for investigators to identify software on damaged or compromised machines or figure out if it has been manipulated in some way.

“While you can’t reproduce a file from its mathematical fingerprint, it can be used for identification purposes,” White said.

White highlighted a number of advancements NIST has been making to NSRL, including the addition of “download-only” software, such as mobile apps, into the library. He also highlighted the virtual machine layer built into the next generation of NSRL, which allows researchers to bolster their library with data by investigating the forensics of the entire software lifecycle.

“We can take all disk images and media images that are in the virtual library and spin them up on virtual machines,” White said. “Any particular operating system or disk image, any particular piece of software, we can then publish the data about the files that we find.”

Mobile Forensics

While NIST has a massive library to use when dealing with computer forensics, it is constantly evolving with the proliferation of mobile devices. When law enforcement is tasked with investigating a mobile device, there is a growing number of operating systems, memory additions and content variations that need to be accounted for. And that’s only if the contents of the device can be accessed.

In order to establish the best way for law enforcement to handle mobile device investigations, NIST recently produced a guide that outlines procedures for the validation, preservation, acquisition, examination, analysis and reporting of digital information.

Rick Ayers, a computer forensic scientist at NIST, described a number of ways mobile forensics investigations are challenging and what direction the guide can offer.

“What do you do when you find a phone in caustic material? What do you do if you find it in a toilet?” Ayers said. “If you are trying to get mobile device back to the laboratory and you are not going to do the on-site process, if you remove that battery, you could activate the deactivation device.”

In addition to the guide, Ayers said NIST’s Computer Forensics Tool Testing team would be examining a number of mobile forensics tools in the coming months that will help investigators work with 20 different devices across GSM and CDMA networks.

SFRA

While a good portion of the talks were dedicated to digital forensics, NIST scientists also highlighted technological advancements in human forensics, particularly biometrics. Elham Tabassi, an electrical engineer at NIST, gave an overview of the agency’s Statistical Friction Ridge Analysis program, which aims to develop a measure of the uncertainty related to fingerprint analysis.

While fingerprints are often used as evidence in cases, lawyers and law experts have been questioning forensic examiner’s bias for years. A paper produced by NIST discusses some of these questions surrounding human error, including how an examiner’s decision can be affected by the level of expertise, bias after exposure to additional information of the case, or workload that hampers focus and attention to detail. Tabassi outlined how these errors can have huge implications, using the example of Brandon Mayfield, an American lawyer who was erroneously linked to the 2004 bombing of a Madrid train station due to a fingerprint misidentification.

The resulting work from the program will be used to create universal vocabulary for explaining fingerprint analysis uncertainty in court as well as further research into better biometric discoveries.

For more information on the conference, visit NIST’s website.

 

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Ash Carter returns to a Pentagon in transition http://fedscoop.com/obama-taps-carter-defense-secretary/ http://fedscoop.com/obama-taps-carter-defense-secretary/#comments Fri, 05 Dec 2014 16:19:22 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=66238 President Barack Obama officially nominated Ashton Carter Friday as his fourth secretary of Defense in six years, calling him one of the nation's "foremost national security leaders" with "a unique blend of strategic perspective and technical know-how."

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Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter offers opening remarks as he introduces Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, to brief Pentagon reporters about the Defense Department

Former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter briefs Pentagon reporters about the Defense Department’s new Better Buying Power initiative in 2010. (Credit: DOD)

President Barack Obama officially nominated Ashton Carter Friday as his fourth secretary of Defense in six years, replacing Chuck Hagel, who resigned amid mounting pressure from White House officials with a long track record of micromanaging defense issues.

The president introduced Carter as “one of our nation’s foremost national security leaders” and said he had been a key player “at the table in the situation room” helping to navigate complex security challenges. “I relied on his judgment,” Obama said.

If confirmed by the Senate, Carter, 60, will take the helm of the Pentagon at a critical turning point. Although the war in Afghanistan is drawing to a close, the U.S. military faces a world of growing crises and unprecedented budget pressures that threaten to create a hollow force incapable of responding across the spectrum of potential conflicts. It is for those reasons that the Obama administration and various independent experts believe Carter is the right choice at the right time to lead the Pentagon.

In a nod to Carter’s educational background and his years of experience helping the Pentagon procure new weapon systems and cancel programs that were not working, Obama praised Carter’s “unique blend of strategic perspective and technical know-how.”

A nuclear physicist by training who has not served in uniform, Carter has done stints in academia, notably at Harvard, Stanford and Oxford universities. But he is perhaps best known for his tenure as the under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics from 2009 to 2011. It was during that time that Carter directed 23 major acquisition reforms that targeted affordability, cost growth, industry competition and wasteful spending.

Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter testifies on options for implementing sequestration and its effects on the nation's defense in a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C., Aug. 1, 2012. (Photo: DOD/Glenn Fawcett)

Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter testifies on options for implementing sequestration and its effects on the nation’s defense in a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C., Aug. 1, 2012. (Photo: DOD/Glenn Fawcett)

That was the beginning of what became known as the Pentagon’s Better Buying Power initiative — an overarching acquisition reform effort designed to find $100 billion in overhead cost savings over five years. The year was 2010, and Gates had given Carter ultimate authority over all major weapons programs, requiring program managers to set affordability targets that could not be altered without Carter’s approval.

Among the many changes instituted by Carter with the initial Better Buying Power policy memorandum was an effort to improve industry incentives to remove unnecessary costs from major acquisition programs. One of the ways he did that was to improve the cash flow process between the Pentagon and the businesses it contracted with. He also sought to improve the amount of competition on department contracts, particularly those contracts that received only a single bidder.

Carter was also the first champion of reforming how the Defense Department acquired services — to the tune of $400 billion a year. One of his first steps was to develop a standardized taxonomy for talking about services throughout the department. The goal was to manage services in a way that recognized each service sector is supported by a different industrial base and each requires a different management structure.

It was a time for what he described as “bold action” to cut fat out of the defense budget, which had seen double-digit growth year-over-year during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council and a former deputy undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, called Carter “a logical choice” to replace Hagel as secretary. “Ash is thoughtful, smart and experienced, having served in key DOD leadership roles during major military operations. His experience gives him the detailed knowledge of the Pentagon, its senior leadership, its complicated budget, and its complex acquisition system necessary for a smooth and seamless transition,” Soloway said in a statement.

Obama characterized Carter’s razor-sharp business mind and command of innovative procurement strategies as an extension of his love for the men and women serving in uniform. “When he cut outdated, unneeded systems, he did it because he was trying to free up money for our troops,” Obama said. When U.S. troops were sustaining unprecedented casualties from improvised explosive devices and roadside bombs in the early stages of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, “He moved heaven and earth to rush them new body armor and vehicles,” Obama said.

Turning to Obama, Carter pledged “my most candid strategic advice” and told the president, “You will receive equally candid military advice.”

Addressing the men and women serving in the military, Cater said, “To you, I pledge to keep faith with you.”


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Lockheed Martin’s Greg Boison on the nation’s cyber threats http://fedscoop.com/lockheed-martins-greg-boison-nations-cyber-threats/ http://fedscoop.com/lockheed-martins-greg-boison-nations-cyber-threats/#comments Fri, 05 Dec 2014 15:05:42 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=66183 Greg Boison, director of homeland and cyber security for Lockheed Martin, stopped by at FedTalks 2014 to talk to FedScoop TV about the nation's cybersecurity threats and more.

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Greg Boison, director of homeland and cyber security for Lockheed Martin, stopped by at FedTalks 2014 to talk to FedScoop TV about the nation’s cybersecurity threats and more.

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Configuration management deficiencies put EPA at risk http://fedscoop.com/configuration-management-deficiencies-put-epa-risk-oig/ http://fedscoop.com/configuration-management-deficiencies-put-epa-risk-oig/#comments Thu, 04 Dec 2014 17:25:00 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=66017 Administrators for the Environmental Protection Agency's networks must focus on improving its configuration management program, according to a report from the agency's inspector general.

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Administrators for the Environmental Protection Agency’s networks must focus on improving its configuration management program, according to a recent report from the agency’s inspector general.epa_seal

“The lack of a fully developed Configuration Management program places the EPA’s network at a greater risk of being compromised,” the EPA Office of Inspector General reported.

Investigators recommended that EPA promptly address deviations red-flagged by scans, keep track of baseline scans of servers and network appliances, and promptly and securely put in patches.

In its report last year, the OIG made similar recommendations after finding deficiencies in EPA’s configuration management. The OIG also listed configuration management as one of several areas needing improvements in a 2012 report. Under the Federal Information Security Management Act, agencies’ inspectors general must evaluate information security programs and practices each year.

“The agency needs to make improvements in its Configuration Management program,” EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr. wrote in a memo to agency Administrator Gina McCarthy.

EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said in a statement to FedScoop that the Office of Environmental Information has reviewed the report and will continue to work to address the highlighted concerns.

“Over the past year, OEI has worked closely with the OIG to address noted concerns on the Fiscal Year 2013 annual Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) report and other OIG reports,” Purchia said. “According to the annual FISMA report, OEI has significantly improved in the areas of Risk Management and Contractor Systems.”

The agency will continue to address configuration management challenges, she said.

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Watch Treasury CIO Sonny Bhagowalia’s FedTalks 2014 keynote http://fedscoop.com/watch-treasury-cio-sonny-bhagowalias-fedtalks-2014-keynote/ http://fedscoop.com/watch-treasury-cio-sonny-bhagowalias-fedtalks-2014-keynote/#comments Thu, 04 Dec 2014 15:10:42 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=66177 Sonny Bhagowalia, chief information officer for the Treasury Department, discussed improving citizen services in the digital age during his FedTalks 2014 keynote.

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Sonny Bhagowalia, chief information officer for the Treasury Department, discussed improving citizen services in the digital age during his FedTalks 2014 keynote.

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GAO chief: DATA Act has a ‘long way to go’ http://fedscoop.com/gao-chief-data-act-long-way-go/ http://fedscoop.com/gao-chief-data-act-long-way-go/#comments Thu, 04 Dec 2014 04:48:51 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=66204 The head of the Government Accountability Office expressed cautious optimism that the federal government could establish governmentwide financial data standards by May 2015.

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(Credit: House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform)

(Credit: House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform)

The head of the Government Accountability Office expressed cautious optimism that the federal government could establish governmentwide financial data standards by May 2015.

“I think that Treasury and OMB and the agencies are off to a good start,” U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told lawmakers during a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing Wednesday. He added, “They’re laying the initial framework. There is a long way to go before they’re going to have the standards in place.”

Dodaro was referring to a deadline set by the DATA Act, an attempt to make U.S. federal government’s financial expenditures more transparent. Passed May 9, the legislation requires the White House Office of Management and Budget to work with the Treasury Department to develop the standards by May 2015.

By 2018 under the law, federal agencies must disclose their direct expenditures in a machine-readable format and link federal contract, loan and grant spending information to agency programs. The information would go on USASpending.gov.

Agencies already are supposed to report their spending on USASpending.gov, though Dodaro pointed to previous GAO research released year that found agencies neglected to report 342 assistance award programs totaling approximately $619 billion. That’s out of the $3.5 trillion that the government spends each year.

During the hearing, Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and other House lawmakers pressed witnesses on the importance of adhering to the schedule set by the DATA Act.

David Mader, controller of the Office of Federal Financial Management at the White House Office of Management and Budget, said his agency and Treasury have taken several steps to see the DATA Act through. The two agencies have established of a governmentwide governance structure to guide the effort, developed a DATA Act implementation plan and worked to improve USASpending.gov’s interface, according to Mader’s written testimony.

“We have chartered a very aggressive path toward implementation,” he said.

In the meantime, Dodaro told lawmakers his agency would track every stage of implication and issue a report in 2015 on the program’s status.

“I want to make sure data standards are complete,” he said.

At the end of the hearing, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia warned that the act should be enacted slowly, pointing to the problems with the initial roll out of Healthcare.gov.

“Surely, seeing what it took to get one agency to go online … should caution us to do this very slowly with pilots in the agency first,” she said.

Though, Issa noted that there have been several efforts to help agencies find interoperable systems. “Isn’t the DATA Act a simply roadmap to a transition that has been ordered by people who predate my 14 years in Congress?” Issa asked the panel of witnesses.

“Yes, definitely,” Dodaro said, though he said that there are new features within the act, including provisions for machine-readable data. He added, “Without the legislative underpinning and consistent oversight, this won’t happen.”

Issa said that in the long term, the federal government should invest in making all data – not just financial – available in machine-ready formats.

“The quality of the data that goes in [the National Archives] sadly is for a long time to come going to be paper or digital equivalents of paper,” like PDFs, Issa said.

He added, “We have to also invest in leaving a legacy of deep information that future generations can easily search. Hopefully we’ll use this as a base and continue across the spectrum.”

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VanRoekel talks firsthand of Ebola-plagued West Africa http://fedscoop.com/vanroekel-talks-time-ground-ebola-plagued-west-africa/ http://fedscoop.com/vanroekel-talks-time-ground-ebola-plagued-west-africa/#comments Wed, 03 Dec 2014 22:26:23 +0000 http://fedscoop.com/?p=66206 U.S. Agency for International Development Chief Innovation Officer Steven VanRoekel said the region's ability to respond to the crisis was hampered by a crippling lack of infrastructure.

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Steven VanRoekel spoke at FedScoop's annual FedTalks about his move to USAID to join the Ebola response. (Credit: FedScoop)

Steven VanRoekel spoke at FedScoop’s annual FedTalks about his move to USAID to join the Ebola response. (Credit: FedScoop)

Steven VanRoekel, about two months into his detail as chief innovation officer of the U.S. Agency for International Development and its battle against Ebola, recently spent seven days in Ebola-stricken Liberia. Despite painting a disastrous and bleak picture of a region crippled by the epidemic, VanRoekel did say, in some ways, things were beginning to return to normal.

“A region that was really the shining star of the continent on economic growth, on education — on so many things that were happening here, they’re now seeing stalled,” he said during an Information Technology Industry Council event Wednesday in Washington, D.C. However, while he was there, “they lifted some of the emergency status of the country, some of the curfews were lifted, restaurants were starting to open back up.”

From his technology- and innovation-focused perspective, though, VanRoekel said the region’s response efforts are crippled due to a lacking communications infrastructure.

“The miracle of the Internet is [that it's] the backbone by which we build all innovation and all connectivity, and it’s just not there” in West Africa, he said. VanRoekel said the region reminds him of his time working with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in India in the late ’90s, one with IT potential waiting to be unlocked.

Before the epidemic hit West Africa, there were improvements being made.  However, when Ebola began spreading through the region this summer, the engineers building up the communications network evacuated. “The network has suffered ever since,” he said.

A joint study from USAID and NetHope found that about 80 percent of Liberia has no cellular service. While in Liberia, VanRoekel used his cellphone in the northern end of the country and “had pretty basic but decent 2G connectivity — I was able to SMS back to my team back in Monrovia,” he said. That type of connectivity, though, tends to follow the road systems and the population, and, even with that, there are large populations without connectivity due to geographical limitations.

USAID workers, and other U.S. responders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Defense Department, are supplied with all of the communications technology they need to effectively track and battle Ebola and treat those who contract it, VanRoekel said. But the focus has in some ways shifted to second-order effects, or as he put it, “thinking about how do we prevent the next Ebola by solving this one in the right ways?” For instance, a lot of VanRoekel’s talks with government officials were about sparking e-government initiatives and “how they could create market demand for communications infrastructure, getting benefit from the populace about being able to connect to their government.”

During his time in Liberia, he said the big success was “getting data harmonized” into a repository hosted by the Liberia Ministry of Health. Now that the data is more meaningful, the job is going to “be about how do we take that as a best practice and scale it to the region, because we don’t have as much visibility in Sierra Leone and Guinea,” VanRoekel told FedScoop.

But plans to improve the health infrastructure long-term are often put secondary to the harsh human realities of the disease. VanRoekel’s described the “incredible” and vivid smell of bleach every where he went, because “you have to wash with bleach water before you can enter” major buildings in the affected areas.

“It’s important to really consider that while technology plays a role, there’s a whole very human role,” he said. Take contact tracing as an example. While the technology behind it provides a powerful picture of the spread of Ebola, if people are afraid to talk about their possible exposure to it, it’s not going to work.

Still, the unprecedented crisis has called for an unprecedented response from the U.S., the former U.S. CIO said, and he thinks we’re succeeding.

“The way the U.S. government has approached this and taken on this challenge of helping Liberia and really now expanding our efforts in the other countries and expanding best practices to those places really is testing new muscle for us,” VanRoekel said. “I think we’re meeting the challenge, but we’re having to be very agile and kind of take that notion with technology.”

In October, VanRoekel delivered a keynote address at FedTalks 2014 before his travel to Liberia. During his talk, he described his agency’s innovative role in assisting in the Ebola response.

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