CIOs prepare for new technology challenges

Information sharing, hurricane response will propel many 2006 IT programs

Irresistible forces -- both natural and manmade -- carved the technology landscape that federal chief information officers must navigate in 2006.

The apocalyptic rage of Hurricane Katrina made CIOs take emergency preparedness and response -- and the technologies that make them possible -- more seriously. But other factors continue to alter the information technology environment. They include pressure from federal, state and local governments to share more information, particularly for first responders and law enforcement; the need to unify computer networks that are more secure and reliable against evolving, more dangerous security threats; and calls from Congress to spend money wisely.

The converging threats and responsibilities will require federal CIOs to juggle more responsibilities than ever, while contending with budget cuts made to pay for hurricane relief, the war on terrorism and other pressing needs. Federal Computer Week asked several CIOs and government watchdogs what technologies will matter to them in the next year and how they will pay for and implement them in the post-Katrina world.

NOAA's eye for an eye

The devastation caused by Katrina and the communications problems it exposed are driving much of the new technology at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NOAA will continue some major initiatives and launch others, said Carl Staton, NOAA's CIO. Several initiatives are related to tracking hurricanes or tornados and developing better climate models. For example, the agency is working on an unmanned aerial vehicle that would escort a hurricane for a long duration.

"It's conceivable that the UAV technology will allow such a vehicle to fly, say, over 60,000 feet and track the storm for as much as a week and continually gather measurements of pressure and wind, which would be a significant improvement in data availability... [and] result in a significant improvement in our forecast," he said.

Meanwhile, researchers from the agency's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J., are developing a prototype high-resolution computer model to simulate an entire season of hurricane activity. NOAA expects to implement the model in the next year or two.

NOAA officials also plan to expand integration of aerial imagery with commercial services, such as Google Earth. Another smaller initiative alters mobile radar trucks used by tornado chasers to temporarily replace radar communications destroyed in natural disasters.

Staton said NOAA will likely award the much-anticipated high-performance computing contract for next-generation research and development activities in the second quarter of 2006. Internally, the agency will deploy some high-end intrusion-detection systems, perform network consolidation to move toward a single NOAA network and consolidate Web servers.

DHS' to-do list

The Homeland Security Department has its own extensive list of improvements to make after Katrina, most notably in the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

DHS' inspector general will closely monitor how FEMA addresses its IT deficiencies, said Frank Deffer, DHS' assistant IG for IT. FEMA at first vociferously disagreed with the IG's September 2005 assessment that condemns the agency for being ill-equipped. But later information appears to confirm the IG's argument, Deffer said.

Finding better ways to share information, improve IT networks and manage essential programs should top the 2006 to-do list for Scott Charbo, DHS' CIO, and his employees, experts from DHS watchdog agencies say.

The IG's office will issue a report in several weeks on difficulties in managing DHS' older networks. DHS is moving toward a standard network platform for sensitive but unclassified information, called One Network, Deffer said. One Network will fix some of DHS' lingering IT problems, such as the lack of a global address list. The IG will look for DHS to set a schedule for the program in 2006.

In 2006 DHS must improve its information sharing with state and local partners through the Homeland Security Information Network, Deffer said. The network is a major effort to promote good communications and knowledge management among federal, state and local homeland security partners, he said. The IG office is still auditing the system and will publish its findings in the spring, he said.

DHS must improve management of its technology for checked baggage screening and radiation detection, said Norman Rabkin, managing director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office. The department must look at ways to move screening equipment out of airport lobbies and integrate the technology into existing baggage-handling lines to improve efficiency, even though that is more expensive, he said.

The department must resolve ongoing privacy and technical concerns about its Secure Flight program, which checks airline passengers against terrorist watch lists, Rabkin said. DHS must also ensure that it uses biometrics to verify the identities of participants in the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, which screens foreign travelers to spot terrorists, and users of the Transportation Worker Identification Credential.

Watch over Sentinel

Perhaps no single federal technology program will get as much scrutiny in 2006 as Sentinel, the FBI's new investigative case management system. Then again, no other program has to overcome the reputation that it was a $170 million flop.

The FBI launched a program in May 2005 to develop Sentinel after pulling the plug on the Virtual Case File management system. VCF, which was never deployed because of ongoing cost and schedule overruns, was part of the FBI's Trilogy program to modernize the bureau's obsolete computer systems.

Another reason the FBI and Justice Department are concentrating on Sentinel is because the system will be the basis for all future federal investigative case management systems, said Vance Hitch, Justice's CIO. The department leads the Office of Management and Budget's case management line of business.

Justice's new Litigation Case Management System will be similar to Sentinel in technology and potential impact. It will replace eight or nine aging systems that must be dispensed immediately, Hitch said. The U.S. Attorney's Office will lead the program, and all Justice components will participate in the nationwide implementation, he said.

Hitch said the department expects to award both contracts in early 2006. The contracts will determine the schedules of both programs, which Justice will implement in phases. Sentinel is on target for completion by 2009, he said.

The FBI's move to a service-oriented architecture and the creation of Sentinel are getting the most attention these days, but the bureau is working on other tech issues, too, said Zalmai Azmi, the FBI's CIO. The FBI will focus on wireless technology in 2006. The bureau is seeking tools that can overlay multiple layers of classified information on geospatial maps. It also wants to create a national database for gang-related information this year.

Justice is working on several new systems and test programs to implement its national Law Enforcement Information Sharing Program for federal, state and local law enforcement partners, Hitch said.

The Regional Data Exchange, an internal tool that allows all department components to share structured and unstructured data, is critical to the program's success, Azmi said. The FBI wants to add four exchanges, including one with DHS and one in San Diego, in 2006 to one already operating in Seattle, he said. The U.S. Attorney's Office must approve the arrangements, he said.

The FBI is starting work on a National Data Exchange, which will serve as an index. Hitch said he expects to issue a procurement proposal for that program this year.

Justice will also devote more energy to internal IT projects. The department's Unified Financial Management System will bloom in 2006, and a procurement for the program is imminent, Hitch said.

Hitch expects to work hard to comply with Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12, which requires federal agencies to issue compliant identity cards to employees and contractors beginning Oct. 27, 2006.

NOAA uses technology to improve service to the country

As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration moves forward with some major initiatives and launches others this year, the agency will continue to show why it offers the best investment of taxpayers' money, said Carl Staton, NOAA's chief information officer.

NOAA has embarked on a range of projects from developing quieter fishing survey vessels to tracking hurricanes with unmanned aircraft and creating computer models of a hurricane season. Although some initiatives may not be operational for several years, they all seek to improve service to the country, Staton said.

The agency is working on an unmanned aerial vehicle that would escort a hurricane for a long duration. Agency officials began some demonstrations last year. In a joint project with NASA, a General Atomic Altair UAV with several meteorological instruments flew for 18 hours off the West Coast. The flight set a couple of records, including longest duration flight and farthest distance from takeoff to return, he said.

In September, NOAA officials flew another UAV around Tropical Storm Ophelia, which became a Category 1 hurricane off the East Coast. He said they demonstrated that UAVs could make near-surface observations in a high-wind hurricane environment and fly at a much lower altitude than Hurricane Hunter flights.

Agency officials are also seeking to further develop phased array radar technology as next-generation weather radars. Staton said they're using a prototype in the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., but it will require a strong partnership in the private sector to develop technologies within budget. For example, he said, the original radar required water-cooling systems that were impractical and expensive.

The vision is also to develop it as dual-use technology. In this project, NOAA is partnering with the Federal Aviation Administration, which is writing software to track aircraft using the same phased array radar. He said research, which started in 2004, may take 15 years.

-- Dibya Sarkar

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