Tug of war: Competing forces shape tech decisions

$8 billion SBI-Net surveillace system

Selecting the "best" technology for a program would be tough enough in a static world, but Homeland Security Department officials find themselves pushed and pulled by three major forces in the format fights.

Consideration of technologies' lifecycles as they develop from a kernel of an idea into experimental products and then into mature products pulls decision-makers in any number of directions.

The force of the marketplace, letting technologies compete and winners dominate exerts formidable pressure, but this caveat must be factored in: with government presenting itself as a single buyer, the marketplace does not work perfectly. As needs change, a third force emerges, the must-have of interoperability, a need for common standards allowing smooth interaction and compatibility among technologies.

Triple-teaming SBI-Net

All three forces are likely to affect development of the department's upcoming $8 billion SBI-Net surveillance system. The initial contract for sensors, cameras and networking across the land borders went to Boeing Co. in September 2006.

One of the first components being developed is a common operating picture, an application that visually represents incoming data, ideally in real time. For the border patrol, the picture is likely to be based on a geographic grid, with icons showing the location of agents, sensors, vehicles and individuals trying to cross the borders. For applications to integrate the data to present that single image, they must have common interfaces and common standards for importing and using the geodata.

Agencies have been working with geodata for decades, but two geo-gorillas: Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth, which offer new capabilities and sometimes improved access to up-to-date satellite photos, have turned the geographic applications market upside down. Currently, government standards are not interoperable with the new commercial products.

"There are some big decisions that the government has to make to figure out the common operating picture for SBI-Net," said Jeff Harrison, former executive director of the interoperability project for the non-profit Open Geospatial Consortium. "I think SBI-Net's [common operating picture] should be interoperable and should be able to access the best data for the job," he said.

"There is a burden for DHS to manage the private-sector investments and innovations," said Cisco Systems Inc.'s Chris Josephs, director of homeland security: It's a much more uncertain place to be, but they are forced to be there. They are driving the leading edge of change."

The common operating picture will be designed to "leverage open standards, and will be sufficiently modular to allow for incorporation of the best of what both government and industry have to offer in the way of geospatial display data and technologies," said Kia L. Evans, a spokeswoman for the department's Customs and Border Protection bureau, which is in charge of SBI-Net.

SBI-Net presents one of the greatest integration tasks around, requiring new levels of interoperability among industry sectors and technologies.

Border security demands integration of an extensive number and type of elements, Josephs agreed. "Government is the owner of some of the biggest problems," he said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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