Web 2.0 for feds

A few federal agencies have ventured into the virtual realm of wikis, avatars and video sharing known as Web 2.0


Summer storms flooded the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year, displacing some employees while the building dried and underwent repairs. Brand Niemann, an EPA data architect, continued working without disruption from his home. His primary telework tools were wikis, which are virtual workspaces where colleagues can access documents, spreadsheets and presentations for various collaborative projects.

Wikis are among the social networking technologies that have given birth to popular Web sites such as YouTube, MySpace, Flickr and Wikipedia. Technology pundits refer to those technologies as Web 2.0.

Web 2.0 sites first gained popularity as play spaces for wired teens and Gen-Xers. Now they have become virtual offices for a few venturesome government agencies and businesses.

Niemann said he learned long ago that the Internet is one of the best storage places for his work materials.

“I’ve been on several details in my 26 years of government service. Files were lost or misplaced,” said Niemann, who frequently collaborates with others in his role as chairman of the CIO Council’s Semantic Interoperability Community of Practice. “I’m fortunate that I had some experiences earlier in my career that taught me to have my own backup for what has become a very versatile way of working.”

Before wikis, Niemann used CD-ROMs and DVDs to back up his work. Today, Niemann uses wikis to collaborate with colleagues who sponsor the numerous workshops he leads. With a Wi-Fi connection and a laptop computer, he and his co-workers, wherever they are, can log on to wiki Web pages to access meeting notes, conference calls, conference agendas and other files — all in one place.

“Maybe the better word is ‘collaborative telework,’ ” he said. “It’s almost like having Microsoft Office on the Internet. It’s like a homepage for all my work.”
One reason he prefers using wikis rather than Web mail to collaborate with outside colleagues is that they can see and edit his wiki pages and files without going behind EPA’s firewall.

Niemann, who has worked this way since 2004, said his bosses don’t mind. Niemann’s personal wiki has RSS functionality, so his supervisors can monitor his work by subscribing to the RSS feed.

He said wikis are useful for records management because they contain logs that document each revision, the name of the person who made the change and when the change occurred.

“For every change, it shows my name,” he said. “It’s an audit trail or journal of what I’ve done.”

Intell agencies discover Web. 2.0
Other officials are beginning to recognize the value of government wikis. One crisis management expert said he thinks wikis and other Web 2.0 applications could become useful resources for homeland security and disaster relief officials. W. David Stephenson, an Internet strategy consultant and principal at Stephenson Strategies, said that before another disaster such as Hurricane Katrina hits, the government should set up a wiki behind a firewall to coordinate relief efforts.

The intelligence community recently acknowledged its interest in using internal wikis for information sharing. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) hosted a public roundtable on Intellipedia, which is an adaptation of Wikipedia, the online, self-correcting, self-evolving encyclopedia that a community of Wikipedia users updates regularly.

“We’re about to launch an experiment in producing a National Intelligence Estimate using the Intellipedia,” said Thomas Fingar, deputy director for National Intelligence for Analysis, who spoke at ODNI’s Information Sharing Conference and Technology Exposition in August. The Intellipedia experiment will focus on Nigeria, he said. “Instead of relying on those who can make it to the meeting or happen to be in town at critical junctures to shape it, we will engage any who are knowledgeable and let the Wikipedia process operate.”

The success of Web 2.0 deployments inside the government hinges upon the willingness of the FBI, the CIA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies to break down walls and share information, Stephenson said.

“You are not going to get the maximum from all of them unless you go in to them with a collaborative attitude,” he said.


Public relations nightmare
Stephenson added that the success of government outreach and recruitment initiatives in the Web 2.0 realm depends on the willingness of public agencies to shed some of their stuffiness and be comfortable relinquishing their control of information.

Web 2.0 sites, such as Facebook and YouTube, are anti-governmental by their nature. Their appeal is their spontaneity and unofficial nature. Stephenson said the government’s efforts to use pop culture sites to communicate its messages could backfire. 

“There is almost an instant credibility gap” when the government uses Web 2.0 applications, he said. For example, public agencies cannot filter the information that comes out of avatars’ mouths in Second Life, a Web site that hosts a 3-D alternative universe, and they shouldn’t, he said. 

Despite such caveats, some federal agencies have begun to adapt to Web 2.0’s free-for-all culture. The Federal Trade Commission created a blog to chronicle a series of FTC hearings about new Internet tools and absolved itself of all responsibility for the site’s content. A recent college graduate who is a member of the FTC’s Honors Paralegal Program in the Bureau of Consumer Protection is the blog’s main contributor. FTC is not disclosing the blogger’s name.

Some government employees become giddy, almost like Web 2.0-obsessed teenagers, when they talk about the possibilities of such innovative tools.

YouTube-like applications would be great for quick training sessions, such as “Here’s how to change out an electrical socket without electrocuting yourself,” said federal employee John Andre, who said he was not authorized to identify his agency or job title. Government or business employees could use video-sharing sites to distribute humorous yet practical tips, he said.

In the public sector, the technology underlying YouTube has great potential for transferring knowledge, Andre said. For example, senior executives could film how they handle a tough decision, archive the video and store it on an internal Web site, which would be accessible to future employees. 

“A lot of these Web 2.0 tools make that storytelling easier,” Andre said.
On the other hand, Andre said he could think of myriad reasons why public Web 2.0 sites might not be the best conduits for government information.

Prepublication policy, budget and procurement information in draft form should not circulate on the Web, he said. If an employee were to log on to a social network with a government computer using a .gov e-mail address or government user name, that employee would run the risk of unintentionally releasing data that someone could mistake for official government information.

“I can’t take advantage of those [Web 2.0 consumer tools] for my professional communications because of the sensitivity of the issues, or because I don’t know where the information is going,” Andre said.

However, the creators of Government Futures, a newly formed Web 2.0 company, said the government will eventually depend on social networking sites for guidance and public feedback. Government Futures, the brainchild of federal-sector veterans Bruce McConnell and Margaret Anderson, began offering an online public forum in late October for gathering the collective intelligence of government and industry leaders on topics of their choosing.

Ask younger colleagues
If agencies want to test the waters before entering virtual worlds, they should seek the advice of younger employees, Web 2.0 experts say. Stephenson’s advice to older-generation workers is to hire cynical twenty-somethings to screen their ideas before investing too many resources in communicating via Web 2.0.

At this early stage, Stephenson said, Web 2.0 applications are probably more valuable to agencies as internal applications that they keep behind a firewall. The government takes some security risks when it enters the Web 2.0 realm, he said. For example, if images or videos of government buildings turn up on a photo-sharing Web site such as Flickr, those buildings could become more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

However, the advantages of participating in the Web 2.0 world outweigh the disadvantages, and the government cannot ignore it, Stephenson said. 

Paradigm shift
The government should go further and embrace the change that Web 2.0 represents, said Rajen Sheth, product manager for the enterprise group at new media behemoth Google, which recently acquired YouTube. Sheth said agencies should use Web 2.0 to encourage greater participation in government.

The federal government’s success in the virtual realm will depend on timing and good risk management, other industry observers say.

Some security experts are starting to recognize threats inherent in Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX), a popular Web interface design approach for creating interactive Web sites such as Flickr, said Hart Rossman, chief security technologist at Science Applications International Corp.’s Integrated Security and System Solutions. In addition, viruses have surfaced on MySpace, AOL’s Instant Messenger service and Yahoo Messenger, he said.

Apart from security vulnerabilities, agencies that want to pursue Web 2.0 applications will confront other challenges, Rossman said.

“There’s a risk of not engaging when the opportunity is right,” he said. “It’s important to consider the timing of the deployment. It may be a good time to plan, but not to deploy,” said Rossman, who is also the founder of the SafeSOA initiative. SafeSOA is a task force of the Association for Enterprise Integration, whose focus is the convergence of enterprise service-oriented architecture and Web 2.0.

Rossman said federal officials should now be discussing which Web 2.0 applications might be most appropriate for their agencies.

“You want to be ahead of that power curve so that when the time is right, you’re not first starting to think about the use of the technology and the risk,” he said. “Some of this stuff is really cool but doesn’t add quality to protecting national security or protecting the national water supply. It doesn’t mean you want to spend a billion dollars finding [that] out, though.”

CDC official has his own avatarThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraged one of its communications employees to establish a headquarters for the agency in Second Life, a Web site that hosts a 3-D alternate universe. The employee, John Anderton, received permission to replicate himself and the agency in cyberspace. In Second Life, Anderton, who is associate director of communications science at CDC’s National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention, became the female avatar Hygeia Philo, a name based on the Greek goddess of health. 

A blogger named Nedra Kline Weinreich, who is a social marketing consultant, posted an entry in early November about her first encounter with CDC’s Hygeia Philo. Sixty hours after her comments appeared, 10 other blogs were directing Second Lifers to CDC’s virtual headquarters, Anderton said.

Anderton is now on detail to CDC’s Office of Enterprise Communication to pursue new media opportunities for the agency, which he wants the public to recognize as a showcase research center and national center for health information. He said he is not too concerned about setting up shop in a playground filled with residents who are interested in cybersex and in making money.

“You do outreach to people where they are, not where you are,” Anderton said. “I didn’t feel that was conflicting at all. I saw it as an opportunity.”

— Aliya Sternstein

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