Panel: Agencies crave new systems to repel threats

Hilton Head, S.C.?Federal agencies responsible for the health and well being of U.S. citizens are seeking creative IT solutions to replace outdated systems, said a panel of government experts Wednesday.

As more federal agencies seek to share information and integrate their systems to detect and deter threats that range from disease carrying insects to terrorists, they increasingly need the vendor community's input on how to overcome some of their challenges.

A panel of speakers from the Agriculture and Homeland Security departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discussed how industry can help in their endeavors to share vast volumes of data and develop solutions and strategies around those data. The panel discussion took place at the 26th Annual Management of Change Conference sponsored by the American Council for Technology and the Industry Advisory Council.

IT companies can provide strategies and tools that quickly process broad volumes of information in real time, said Lorraine Leithiser, director of information technology programs integration at DHS' Custom and Border Protection agency.

The government has older systems in place that track money laundering, drug interdiction people trying to avoid paying duties on certain commodities, which have collected vast amounts of information over the years. Now it must also collect and combine data on new diseases, biological threats and terrorism tactics, and it has no prior information on these activities to analyze.

As CBP uses more statistical and analytical processes to try to deal with the large volumes of information, industry can develop tools that allow the agency to cross-mine relevant data sets in real-time, she said.

For example, CBP can obtain limited information on cars and trucks passing through borders checkpoints with license-plate readers and radio frequency identification technology. But border patrol agents have only a few minutes to decide, based on available information, whether they will let the vehicle and its contents into the country.

Companies also can apply some of the IT systems they have installed in multiple federal agencies to advise other agencies that would be able to use the same systems, said Gregory Parham, chief information officer of the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The vendor community has "either systems they have been developing, or they're aware of other initiatives that are parallel or very similar to ones that we may be contemplating," he said.

Barry Rhodes, associate director for technology and informatics, division of emergency preparedness and response, National Center for Public Health Informatics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said his agency's IT challenges center on the lack of standards and interoperability of different hospital systems.

The hospitals "use different IT systems by different vendors, and some [systems] are even homegrown," he said. "They all have different business practices ? and different coding. All of that information has to be somehow standardized and brought forward to a central location in order to make sense out of it."

Agencies that focus on threat detection and prevention don't always do a good job of relating their IT needs to the vendor community, the panelists said.

"We tend to struggle with the ability to translate our problem areas into something that's actionable to the vendor community, and I don't think we've done a good job in partnering in that regard," Rhodes said.

While vendors and the government IT space have converged on standards with commitments to use a service-oriented architecture and enterprise services, agencies will still struggle with articulating their IT needs, Leithiser said.

"We're always going to be challenged with trying to define a stable set of requirements in terms of what we need technically," she said.

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