Web extra: Transforming technologies made their mark in the past 20 years

Two decades of information technology advances produced changes that transformed government operations. The x86 architecture and the Web led the way, but other technologies, including CD-ROM, geographic information systems, viruses and wireless computing, had a significant effect on how the government conducts its business.

1. CD-ROM: Storing vast amounts of data
The emergence of CD-ROM technology in the early 1980s offered agencies a way to store and preserve vast amounts of data, helping them to move away from the more cumbersome magnetic tapes, said Jerry McFaul, a computer scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey.

The technology also offered agencies a more cost-effective way of disseminating information to the public. Before CD-ROMs, people stored data on magnetic tapes, so only those with access to big computers could retrieve it, he said.

USGS was the first federal agency to put data on CD-ROM in 1985. The agency made a CD-ROM prototype with 100M of satellite data imagery. 3M produced the disc, which the company developed from data on tape. It cost $10,000 to make a master disc. USGS made 25 discs and placed 25 PC disc readers in various locations nationwide, McFaul said.

2. GIS: Hard-working application
Agencies find many uses for GIS applications, from mapping resources to counting the population and aiding disaster relief operations. By 2000, agencies were starting to put GIS applications online that otherwise might have been accessible to only a few specialists. The National Cancer Institute, for example, implemented an interactive cancer mortality map on its Web site that lets viewers decide how to display the information.

3. Viruses and Worms: Wake-up calls
Never have the words “I Love You” wreaked havoc on so many hearts — and computer systems — as they did in May 2000. Many government and corporate networks were overwhelmed by a virus contained in an e-mail message attachment with the subject line “I Love You.” When a user clicked on the attachment, known as the Love Bug, the virus triggered Microsoft’s Outlook e-mail messaging software to automatically send viruses to everyone in the victim’s address book.

The virus affected many government agencies, from Congress to the Pentagon and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, forcing some organizations to shut down their systems.

“It was a day that people discovered computers weren’t friendly,” said Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute. “They already knew [computers] were recalcitrant and broke down.” But they now realized that malcontents could harness technology to do harm, he added.

Other virus and worm attacks followed: Code Red and Nimda in 2001 and the Blaster Worm in 2003. They have forced agencies to install better patching systems to plug security vulnerabilities in commercial software before hackers can exploit them.

4. Wireless: An untethered world
Wireless computing started to take off after the 2001 terrorist attacks, said Dan Kent, director of systems engineering at Cisco Systems Federal. Wireless was around before that, but after the terrorist attacks, many people required quick responses and the ability to communicate over federal, state and local space, he said. Plus, the Defense Department has been making a big push for network-centric warfare, which requires giving a mobile warfighter access to information.

Municipal governments are leading the charge in launching broadband wireless networks, seeking better, more efficient communications among public safety and other government agencies. Municipal officials also want to offer more affordable Internet service to their residents.

Perhaps the most transformative wireless technology to affect industry and government in recent years has been Research In Motion’s BlackBerry. The wireless handheld device, introduced in 1999, provides e-mail, Internet faxing, text messaging and Web browsing.

In its early days the BlackBerry was mostly about e-mail, said David Heit, director of software product management at RIM. It allowed executives to receive e-mail messages when they weren’t at their desks. From the outset, he said, government agencies — from Congress to DOD and the National Institutes of Health — recognized the power of the tool. About four years ago, U.S. Postal Service officials realized it could be an integral part of its disaster recovery plan and asked RIM to create a buddy list feature so postal employees could contact one another in the event of an emergency, he said.

BlackBerries are extremely powerful tools, said Corey Booth, CIO at the Securities and Exchange Commission. “They allow us to communicate seamlessly, even through evenings, weekends, and travel periods. This puts them more in touch with operational tasks and helps them to multitask more effectively without worrying about being shackled to a PC or phone.”

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