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9/13/2010
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InformationWeek 500: Government Innovators

With projects ranging from safer Web browsing to a 21st century air traffic control system, federal, state, and local agencies demonstrate that they, too, can apply IT in critical and novel ways.

Special agents and other FBI employees are better equipped to collaborate and track down fugitives as the result of two agency-wide IT upgrades that deliver much-improved desktop capabilities and network access.

The agency first overhauled its network infrastructure, replacing ATM/frame relay gear with IP/ Multiprotocol Label Switching. Its new Next Generation Network increases bandwidth and reduces latency in 800 locations. As that project wound down, the FBI began replacing outdated PCs with sleek new systems featuring 24-inch monitors, integrated IP phones, and collaboration tools such as presence awareness, instant messaging, and videoconferencing. FBI personnel can now quickly establish multiparty videoconferences for unscheduled meetings and information sharing.

Government agencies are criticized regularly for their all-too-common IT security lapses, gross inefficiencies and billion-dollar boondoggles. Yet the public sector also can be surprisingly innovative in its technology initiatives, with projects that lay the groundwork for new services, improved computer and national security and more effective government.

The U.S. Postal Service's Intelligent Mail service, for example, represents a new era for the 230-year-old mail system, which still delivers letters and packages by mule in rural Arizona. Introduced last year and based on a more complex bar code that makes it possible to track individual pieces of mail, Intelligent Mail is more efficient while giving mega users such as banks and retailers better visibility into their direct mail efforts.

Intelligent Mail is one of 15 projects -- 10 by federal agencies, five by state and local governments -- selected by the editors of InformationWeek Government for recognition in our 2010 Government IT Innovators contest. The winners range from a lightweight technology developed by the Air Force for more secure web browsing to the Federal Aviation Administration's Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast system, a foundational technology for the agency's "NextGen" air traffic control system. Four of our chosen projects are healthcare-related, a reflection of the central role that healthcare IT now occupies at all levels of government.

Centers For Medicare And Medicaid Services

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' CMS Dashboard is a first step in making timely data from the nation's largest health insurance program more widely available to the public, policy makers and healthcare providers. After six months of internal testing, CMS Dashboard was launched as a beta site in April. In its first iteration, the site lets users track Medicare spending on inpatient hospital services by state, by the top 25 diagnosis-related groups and by the top 10 hospitals in each state. An example of the federal "open government" initiative, CMS Dashboard uses business intelligence technology to make data available in bar and bubble charts, time-series graphs, and grid tables. Plans call for data sets from other CMS programs to be added to CMS Dashboard.

U.S. Air Force

A team at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio has developed a simple software program, called Lightweight Portable Security that enables secure computing in a variety of common scenarios. LPS is available in a free, public version and in a version intended for government use called LPS-Remote Access. The latter employs a minimized Linux operating system that connects to a hard-coded IP address, establishing a VPN to a remote computer.

LPS-Remote Access was created in mid-2009 in response to the H1N1 pandemic threat. The H1N1 threat never materialized to the extent feared, but the software has proved to have a range of potential uses, such as telecommuting during weather-related office closings. It has been approved for emergency telecommuting by the Department of Defense.

General Services Administration

Agencies across the federal government are taking their first steps into cloud computing, often with help from the General Services Administration. From the time that the Federal Cloud Computing Initiative was launched in September 2009, GSA has played a central role in Uncle Sam's move to the cloud. GSA CIO Casey Coleman is chairman of the CIO Council's influential Cloud Computing Executive Steering Committee, while Katie Lewin is cloud computing program manager at GSA.

A cornerstone of GSA's cloud computing program is the Apps.gov portal, where government employees can subscribe to pre-approved productivity and business apps offered as a service. The pending introduction of infrastructure as a service on Apps.gov -- including storage, servers and web hosting -- will make it possible for government agencies to sign up for on-demand, virtualized IT resources with the same ease that businesses now tap into Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud. That should make federal IT operations more flexible and adaptable.

Department Of Transportation

Given its authority over highways and railways, it seems appropriate that the Department of Transportation is charting a course into open government. The department's Regulation Room initiative, done in conjunction with the Cornell e-Rulemaking Initiative, employs social networking to encourage public input into DOT policy-making, and the department hosted an open government workshop in January that drew attendees from three dozen agencies. DOT's efforts have received a thumbs-up in all 10 categories of the White House's open government dashboard. In August, the agency was recognized by federal CTO Aneesh Chopra for its Regulation Room, as well as for the "leadership, governance and culture change" embodied in its approach.

Federal Aviation Administration

A linchpin in the FAA's long-term plan to upgrade the nation's air traffic control system is Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B, which provides data of unprecedented precision and timeliness on the whereabouts of aircraft in the air and on the ground. Plans call for the ADS-B system to replace the 60-year-old, radar-based traffic control system nationwide by 2013. ADS-B is being deployed in a growing number of areas, including Juneau, Alaska; Louisville, Ky.; and Philadelphia. Because it employs GPS, ADS-B extends capabilities to new areas of coverage. ADS-B ground stations were deployed on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and, in November 2009, service was turned on, making helicopters and other aircraft over the Gulf visible to air traffic controllers for the first time. The system makes for improved "situational awareness" in the cockpit, too, because pilots receive real-time data on aircraft that are in close proximity to their own planes.

Recovery Accountability And Transparency Board

While other federal agencies tiptoe into cloud computing, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board jumped in with both feet. In April, the board transitioned its public-facing website, Recovery.gov, from on-premises IT infrastructure to Amazon.com's Elastic Compute Cloud, making it one of the first government agencies to place such a big bet on a commercial cloud service. Orchestrated by the board's IT contractor, Smartronix, the move will lead to an estimated $750,000 in savings over 18 months, while freeing up hardware and software for other uses. The board figures that its site is actually more secure than before, because it now has two layers of security -- its own, plus that provided by Amazon.

U.S. Postal Service

The Postal Service's "Full Service" Intelligent Mail, introduced in May 2009, is still in the early going, but adoption is growing so quickly that it's fast becoming a major source of revenue. USPS estimates the service will be adopted by 50,000 customers and generate $25 billion in annual revenue.

Full Service is enabled by a more sophisticated bar code and upgrades to USPS's automated mail-distribution technology. The service is architected for scale, capable of handling a half-billion pieces of mail and 1 billion scan transactions daily. Full Service Intelligent Mail is oriented toward businesses that are heavy-duty mailers, giving them the ability to track individual pieces of mail and better insight into undelivered mail, which amounts to a staggering $2 billion annual cost.

Centers For Disease Control

In the face of fast-spreading health hazards -- H1N1, salmonella, seasonal flu -- the timely distribution of preventive and other information is critical. With that in mind, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed an API that hastens the sharing of its information with other health organizations, including public health departments and educational institutions. The CDC's Content API pipes health and safety information directly to websites such as Flu.gov, FDA.gov and FoodSafety.gov.

In one example of how that API works, more than 100 pages of H1N1-related content were shared with Flu.gov. This type of syndicated information sharing, while good business practice during the best of times, becomes critically important during public health emergencies.

Health And Human Services

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT is advancing the adoption of electron ic medical records through its work on the Nationwide Health Information Network. A key development is the NHIN Direct Project, launched in March to expand the number of ways that data can be simply and securely exchanged at a more local level, such as when a doctor is making a referral to a specialist. The project involves identifying standards, service definitions and implementation guides in support of this important initiative.

Washington, D.C.

TrackDC is a leading example of how municipal governments are making data available to citizens in new, user-friendly ways. The District of Columbia describes TrackDC as a "real-time dashboard." An ASP.NET application, TrackDC pulls information -- performance plans and metrics, budget and customer service data, agency documents -- from various sources into a web interface, and makes data available in machine-readable and other formats.

The initiative's goals include increasing accountability and public trust by providing better access to government data. There's also an internal version for city officials that has reduced the labor associated with developing reports and given city managers a window into operational effectiveness.

Douglas County Sheriff's Office

Data overload prompted the Douglas County Sheriff's Office in Colorado to develop an application that combines geodata from various systems into an interactive map using Google Earth and the county's geographic information system from ESRI. The application, called i-Map (short for Incident Map), gives county employees access to 50 layers of mapped information, including roads, lakes and rivers, parks, government facilities and police routes. I-Map integrates with computer-aided dispatch, letting emergency personnel view call locations and the whereabouts of emergency and police vehicles and snowplows, as well as the homes of sex offenders or people with special needs. It also links to data feeds coming from school and government buildings.

The system has been used to create an evacuation plan in the event of a major forest fire and to plan security around school events. It took three IT staffers four months to develop i-Map. The county pegs its annual savings at $750,000, based on the cost to acquire the same capabilities on a commercial platform.

Wisconsin Division Of Vocational Rehabilitation

The Wisconsin Division of Vocational Rehabilitation recently deployed videoconferencing systems to 12 of its offices. That alone wouldn't warrant special attention, but the division's clientele -- people with hearing impairments and other disabilities -- made the project more challenging than most. The agency's system supports remote closed captioning of videoconferences, eliminating the need for on-site sign language interpretation, and includes headsets that amplify sound for both staff and customers who need it.

The state plans to use the system in other ways. For example, it will connect clients with staffers who have expertise in a particular area -- say, veterans claims -- but who are located in another office. The state also plans to hold unemployment claim hearings and advisory board meetings over video, and it will potentially let clients who can't get into an office use PC-based videoconferencing to meet with staff.

Orange County Health Care Agency

The Orange County Health Care Agency in California has designed and deployed an electronic health record system for people enrolled in the Medical Services Initiative, a healthcare program for about 45,000 of the county's indigent adults. The system links pharmacies, lab and diagnostic centers, hospital emergency rooms, community clinics and primary care physicians.

The project required development of a web-based health record system, MSI Connect, to capture data such as emergency room admissions and discharges, diagnosis and procedure codes, prescriptions and specialty referrals. Since deploying the system last year, the county has studied its effects and has found improved quality of care for patients. The ability to refer patients electronically from the emergency department to their primary care physicians led to a 52% decrease in the likelihood of a related return visit to the ER, resulting in estimated annual savings of $636,000.

California eServices Office

The challenge of serving California's citizens has been made difficult by the tough economy, combined with the state's own budget woes. People come to the state's primary website, CA.gov, "because they need to, because they have to," according to California's eServices Office. The eServices Office, which develops websites and web applications for state agencies, is behind several e-government initiatives that have elevated state services at little or no additional cost to state taxpayers.

For example, when furloughs created long lines at Department of Motor Vehicles offices, eServices turned to Twitter to answer questions. Elsewhere, a widget was created for the state's Employment Development Department that combines the department's news, Twitter and YouTube services for the public. Within two months, the widget had received 2 million impressions.

California's eServices Office also worked with six other state organizations to develop and launch a website, at business.ca.gov, in support of the Office of Economic Development, after that office was created through the consolidation of other departments. As the eServices Office has demonstrated, it's necessary to do more with less when less is all you've have.

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