Online Extra: Geological's IT is nuts and bolts

Geological's IT is nuts and bolts ? and rocks and water

Karen Siderelis is the geographic information officer at the U.S. Geological Survey. Not CIO, but GIO ? a title that reflects the unique aspects of her job involving science.

Siderelis recently spoke with Managing Editor Evamarie Socha. Here is the complete interview:


WT: Your title, geographic information officer, is different from that of other CIOs. Is your job very different from that of a typical CIO?

Siderelis: I think it is. It includes every function that most CIOs have; but in addition, I have more responsibilities dealing with scientific data holding and knowledge management than some of my peers. I also have responsibility for what we call information services, and it includes things such as our libraries, public information centers and the scientific publishing process. I don't do the publishing, but I sort of have responsibility for publishing policy, which overlaps to some extent with data quality and those kinds of things.

WT: That sounds like a lot to have on your plate.

Siderelis: It is. I have a lot of good people working for me. I also might add two things in explaining the geographic information officer plate ? One is that USGS is a natural and earth science organization and most of the data and information that we deal with is spatial or about the earth, so I think that's the choice of the title.

Also, a part of my responsibilities includes the secretary of the federal and geographic data committee, an interagency committee that deals with geographic information. So it's quite broad, and very exciting.

WT: Given the science involved with USGS, are your technology needs different from the typical tech needs of an agency?

Siderelis: The work we do leads toward a very unique, specialized technology environment. We have typical needs for networks, desktops, help desk, those sorts of things. But it's significantly different than what you might see in a non-science agency. For the most part ? and this, any agency could say ? a lot of the technology is so interconnected to the programs themselves, you can't just say it's IT. It really is a fundamental part of the program.

A lot of the works we do is in the hazards area. So, for example, if we are monitoring earthquakes or rivers and streams, the technology out there in the field is information technology to some extent, but it's highly specialized and customized, and even ruggedized in some cases. That's one way our needs are different.

A lot of the work we do in scientific modeling and so forth demands a high degree of ? even in the network, for example ? performance and capacity that might not be true if we were simply dealing with more traditional kinds of information.

Because we produce knowledge, and the whole purpose of the organization is to produce knowledge and provide it to those who might make decisions and so forth, access is a key thing for us. So our network has been designed for performance and access. It's highly distributed across landscape. Our technology is built into a very collaborative environment [because] we work with partners and universities and state agencies and so forth. That leads to a very complex technology infrastructure that is very much of a challenge to meet.

If you jump to the next level of dealing with the data itself, not just the technology but also the content, we have these fabulous challenges in knowledge management and modeling. To some extent, a number of our scientists are pushing the edge and contributing to the state of the science. So it's almost as if the information sciences is another side of the science of USGS.

WT: With some of your requirements, are things more tailored or designed for you, or are they more off the shelf?

Siderelis: It's a mix. There are numbers of things that we can do with off-the-shelf solutions. We also enter quantitative research and development agreements with industry to develop a technology or exploit an area of technology that we need to accomplish our mission.

WT: What do you look for in companies with which you are thinking of doing business?

Siderelis: It's almost bimodal, because typically the CIO would look to a company that has a good track record, some longevity, is a market leader, has performed well over some period of time. So that would be one thing that means a lot to me. On the other hand, we are also looking for companies that are into innovation and sort of out-of-the-box solutions to things we're doing. You don't often find that all in one company. The last thing we look for, maybe not in a technology vendor, per se, but in contractors or consultants is someone who knows the current federal climate and IT.

WT: A year from now, where do you see USGS's technology capabilities?

Siderelis: One of our goals is to bring some enterprise approaches to our information technology to reduce costs and provide a greater benefit to the programs. There are some things we can do in trying to achieve economies and advantages, such as enterprise approaches to operating systems and geographic information systems. We are looking at where there are some common needs, even in the area of modeling or knowledge management.

We've developed is a vision statement for our office to bring a more integrated environment to USGS to make it easier for scientific programs to work together. [For example,] biology and hydrology can collaborate more effectively because they have technology that supports that.

One other thing I'd like to see in the next couple years is that programs perceive us as adding value to what they do as opposed to being a resource drain. Often the IT support stuff looks like overhead. I'd really like to turn that around, so that we're doing things so well and so aligned with the mission of the organization, that it seen that it's really paying back to the programs.

The last thing I'd like to see in the next couple of years is some, at least case or two, in which we've actually collaborated with a program to modernize or develop an information system or capability that they couldn't do without the CIO's office help ? enter into a real, true partnership to do that.

One opportunity we have is to work with biology programs, and some awesome work we're doing with the bird-banding laboratory. They have historic data, I think about 60 million records that they need to get automated and modernized, and privy access to users, and develop tools for sizing and analyzing that information. It's a program that's very important to the states. I don't think I can do that in every program, but I'd like to find two or three good cases where we actually broke some new ground with the programs. The bird-banding lab would be one where we have a real opportunity to do some neat things.

WT: With all the rain the East has been getting, does USGS use any technology to monitor flood plains, or anything like that?

Siderelis: That is not managed out of my office. It's managed through the water programs. But we have a National Water Information System that works in hand with the National Streamflow Information Program. Essentially, it's a physical network of stream gauges across the country that monitors stream flow. That is the data the [National Weather Service] uses to do flood forecasts. It really is one of the premiere responsibilities of USGS. We have years of data in the information system, historic data and an ongoing monitoring program, and also some very sophisticated research in that area, such as how to predict areas of inundation, based on certain stream levels and so forth. It's a very exciting area.

WT: Does USGS provide any contribution to homeland security?

Siderelis: This is an area in which it's not my domain, per se. But there are at least three areas where we've done some work that involves providing large scale, high resolution mapping of some of the larger urban areas. I think it was initially called the 133 Cities Project; that is through the mapping side of USGS. We've also done some things through our geology program, such as remote sensing following the World Trade Center incident, trying to use some of our geologic expertise to identify asbestos and other contaminants in the area. We've also been doing some work in water and investigating new sensor development, water-bourn sensors for detecting potential contaminants. We're doing that work in collaboration with others.

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