Internet Development Software
Agencies Find a Brave New E-World
By Calli Schmidt
As high-tech businesses race to develop new Web-based solutions for their government customers, they are discovering that the Internet has made the universe of potential software applications as limitless as the problems governments must solve and the tasks they must perform.
"Just about any service we provide in government is open for inspection and rethinking," said Martin Cole, who heads Andersen Consulting's Global Government Ventures and New Business Models unit. Chicago-based Andersen created the unit last month to seek out best-of-breed applications and practices.
"There's not going to be a short list of solutions," Cole said.
And while the public sector often follows the private sector in developing and adopting Internet software solutions, the pace of government innovation is expected to pick up. In fact, not only are citizens beginning to demand more Internet services, so are government employees.
These days, "you can almost take it for granted that [government employees] are going to have Web access at work. Two years ago, that wasn't true," said Jim Townsend, president of Information Strategies Inc., a Washington-based Web application development company. "Now they say, 'Why can't we do our procurement like Amazon.com?' Increasingly, decision makers are saying, 'Why not? Let's go ahead and do it.' "
Agency heads now are more likely to work in concert with their chief information officers, said Wayne Kelly, assistant to the president of the federal sector at El Segundo, Calif.-based Computer Sciences Corp. It used to be that chief information officers could offer good ideas about automating government processes, but they had no control over the budgets that would pay for these innovations. Now, "they're getting more influence," he said.
The confluence of better technology, more awareness and improving communication is opening the gate to more sophisticated e-commerce applications, the "Web-enabling" of existing processes, and an altogether new way for the government to do business. A number of trends appear evident.
For example, government organizations are moving from the client-server model of complex software that runs on powerful personal computers to Web-based software that "lives" on the Internet, "so now you don't need an $8,000 monster to run these applications," said Tim Hoechst, vice president of technology at Oracle Service Industries, Reston, Va.
New software designed by Digital Paper Corp., Alexandria, Va., has enabled agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to put maps of runways, roadway designs and aeronautical charts on the Internet. This allows outsized maps and blueprints ? expensive to copy and usually somewhat fragile ? to be accessed more easily and cheaply.
"These are large documents that can't be sent across a network, said John Cronin, chief executive officer of the company.
State and local governments in Illinois, Maryland, Ohio and Utah also have purchased the software, which allows property owners to view their plat plans or construction firms to examine blueprints of county-owned buildings when bidding on renovation projects, for example.
The software costs users between $50,000 and $200,000, depending on the number of documents they are putting on the system. Savings figures are not available yet for government institutions, but General Electric Co., Fairfield, Conn., saves $30,000 a month in paper and productivity costs by using the software, Cronin said.
The idea of using the Internet as the place to store applications and PCs as the place to access information via the Web enables the government to save money on software and on the powerful machines that users need to run them, said Oracle's Hoechst.
The client-server model "still works, but it's not the cost-effective model that people are moving toward in the Internet," he said. Instead of using paper forms for human resources functions, for example, it is more efficient to have employees enter information on the Web than have a room full of human resource clerks. Web-based applications "cost less and take fewer people," Hoechst said.
But even as the government moves more functions to the Internet, client-server applications will never disappear entirely, said Dave Rosenland, senior development manager for Rational Software Corp., Cupertino, Calif. Rosenland favors an approach that splits the difference.
"It's false to assume that everyone will use that kind of computing model," he said.
Part of the problem is that the Internet still is not entirely reliable. "You don't want to be dependent on things that are going to go down from time to time, even though it doesn't happen that often," Rosenland said.
Also, people continue to use laptops, and "that's going to require having computing power on the desktop. The software that's being built has to support both those models," he said.
Another trend among Internet software developers is to take technologies developed for commercial ventures and adapt them to government customers.
One example is WAM!NET, which was first developed in the mid-1990s as a secure electronic delivery solution for the printing, pre-press, publishing, public relations and advertising industries.
The company's two founders, Edward Driscoll and Allen Witters, had built local area networks for graphics arts businesses. WAM!NET customers use the technology to send completed pages to the companies that print their magazines, track page progress through the pre-press and printing processes, and store pages and ads for upcoming issues.
"It's a fully managed, secure, private network," said Brent Backhaus, a Silicon Graphics Inc. systems engineer in Minneapolis.
Mountain View, Calif.-based Silicon Graphics provided information processing O2 workstations and Origin 200 servers to act as the 50 network hubs for WAM!NET, which now markets the system to other customers as data transportation and storage that is more secure and less likely to break down than an Internet-based system.
The O2 workstation acts as a garage door, opening to accept the data and then closing again before the door on the receiving side opens to accept the digital copy and images. "There's not a portal, not an open door, for any human to look at," Backhaus said. It is a security system that he said he could not discuss in detail to avoid compromising it.
Unlike images transported over the Internet, companies linked through WAM!NET do not have to use passwords or encrypt the data sent through the system. That is important for companies that want to protect copyrighted or branded material and images ? such as the Disney Co.'s Mickey Mouse ? that can go through enough changes during the encryption process that the copyright is no longer valid, Backhaus said.
One government agency now taking advantage of WAM!NET is the Immi-
gration and Naturalization Service office in El Paso, Texas, which uses the network as part of its tuberculosis screening program, he said.
Aliens who enter the country can be X-rayed at the El Paso facility, and then the film can be digitized and sent via WAM!NET to a radiologist at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Milwaukee, Backhaus said. The radiologist reads the X-ray and sends the results back to El Paso. It now takes just several hours to complete the process, which once had taken several days to accomplish through the mail or other delivery service, he said.
A system such as WAM!NET could be useful to groups of government agencies that want to send secure data to each other but are not hooked up to a local or wide area network. Silicon Graphics is among those vendors interested in the planned Navy-Marine Corps Intranet, Backhaus said.
Agencies that need to give or get information from citizens, such as the Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Administration and Veterans Affairs, also are likely to adopt Web-based solutions, industry officials said.
The U.S. Geological Survey, for example, is using WebDB, an Oracle Internet development tool, to build a portal from which to retrieve metadata from their data warehouse, according to Michael Sperling, senior public relations manager at Oracle.
This summer, the USGS will incorporate another Oracle product called Discover3i, a Web-based query tool. Discover3i will enable visitors at the USGS Web site to enter identifying information about nearby streams, rivers and other bodies of water and obtain data concerning nutrient and pesticide concentrations and other water quality issues.
Other government organizations also use Web-based software to manage their growing bodies of information. The Marine Corps' 1,500 recruiting officers, for example, are using a Windows-based system on an extranet to track recruit status.
The Marines "need to know the pipeline of people who are going to be coming into the Corps, what their skills are and when they're going to be joining," said Townsend, whose Information Strategies company developed the Marine Corps system. It helps the Marines avoid shortage in key areas and "forecast who's going to be going though that whole process."
The Army also uses the company's Web-based application to keep tabs on its housing, Townsend said. "It tracks quarters for officers and enlisted men: when was it built, the occupancy rate" and whether the housing is appropriate to the rank of the service man or woman who is occupying it.
"That's something that's nice to be able to do, to consolidate a view . . . instead of picking up the phone and calling 100-and-some [posts] and asking them what's going on," he said.
Another Web-based application tracks the grant proposals for Empowerment Zones Enterprise Communities, a federal program that gives money to projects, mostly related to job training, in impoverished areas. The software enables state and federal overseers to ensure the grant projects are achieving their stated goals, Townsend said.
When it comes to delivering information, the government has been notoriously slow in providing access to documents through the Freedom of Information Act. Lawyers, public interest groups, journalists and private citizens invoke the act to get government agencies to release tax returns, criminal files or notes and background materials that result in legislation or in the awarding of grants.
Before many of the requested documents are released under FOIA, they must be "redacted," or reviewed by government officials to prevent the release of information that would violate national security or someone's privacy. If a person requests information related to a criminal investigation, for example, this usually means that an FBI employee must find the files, make copies, black out the redacted material with a felt-tip pen, recopy the documents so the reader cannot discern the lettering behind the pen marks, mail the document to the requester and make an additional copy for the FBI files. It is a slow, cumbersome process buried within many layers of bureaucracy.
The process is being streamlined by new software application, called FOIAxpress, which allows citizens and public interest groups to obtain FOIA documents via the Internet. With FOIAxpress, the requester can go to the agency's Web site, register for a FOIA request, type in the information needed and then track the status of the request through the agency's system until the documents are returned, said Cristina Farr, account manager for AINS Inc., Rockville, Md., which developed FOIAxpress.
At the agency end, the Windows NT-based software receives, classifies and logs requests and appeals, retrieves and redacts documents right on the screen, scans the ones not available electronically, provides options for mailing, e-mailing, faxing or enabling the requester to download the documents, and produces an invoice as well as an annual report.
Several Army and Navy agencies and government entities, including the Interior Department, have seen demonstrations of the software, which will sell for $45,000 for a five-user system when it debuts next month, Farr said. One Army agency already is using the redaction feature, she said.
Although moving at a slower pace than private industry, government Web sites are evolving in the same general pattern, said Rosenland at Rational Software.
Public- and private-sector organizations usually put up static Web sites first. These sites are focused on content that may change from time to time but which does not interact with people who visit the site. The organizations next put up more advanced sites that might include a real-time stock ticker or a registration form that can be filled out online.
In the third stage, organizations create complex sites with "a combination of Web applications and e-commerce systems that have turned delivery time on its head," Rosenland said. "Software enhancements are done overnight when I come to that Web site. There is a real-time connection with inventory, security."
Many commercial Web sites already have arrived at this interactive third-stage, while government sites are just beginning their approach.
But it also must be noted that governments cannot ignore taxpayers without Web access. "There are going to be people not using the Web," said Kelly of Computer Sciences Corp. "They're going to have to deal with those constituents in the same manner, whether they come in [via] the Web, make a phone call or come into the office. They'll need to provide the same kind of answers," and the tools to do so already exist.
Nevertheless, the combination of external pressure from taxpayers and legislators and internal support from increasingly Web-savvy employees is pushing government agencies onto the Web.
"They're starting to see that they're getting the expertise, that tools are getting better" and the leap to a new way of doing business is not as hard as it first seemed, Hoechst said.