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Geek chic in a virtual world

NASA invites open-source partners (FCW)

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In recent weeks, there have been scores of instances of agencies struggling in the new Web 2.0 world. Some examples are the Army’s foiled attempts to silence soldier bloggers and the Defense Department ruling that YouTube and other so-called entertainment Web sites are verboten to anyone using a DOD computer. So it was interesting this past week to see a different approach from the director of NASA’s Ames Research Center.

Ames director Pete Worden addressed the International Space Development Conference May 26. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary there, except that Worden gave his speech through his avatar in the virtual online world Second Life.

The Dallas crowd could watch Worden’s avatar speak on one screen, while a second one showed an audience of avatars taking in the speech on NASA’s virtual island in Second Life. “This is not your father’s space program,” Worden said.

The agency hopes to create a better space program using the virtual world to bring together a diverse group of NASA employees, business leaders, software programmers and others outside the traditional space community to collaborate on space exploration challenges. You’ve heard of the concept of mass collaboration? NASA’s doing it.

And NASA is not the only government agency in this virtual world. In January, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) participated in an online event in Second Life as a way of showing how the new Congress will use innovative technologies to let Americans enjoy greater participation in policy making.

“Democrats want to use technology to help broaden the public’s access to elected leaders and open up the policy process [to] the widest possible spectrum of views, insights and opinions,” Miller said. He said the Education and Labor Committee, of which he is chairman, will hold online e-hearings, among other things.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institutes of Health and its National Library of Medicine have all staked their claims in this virtual world.

Does this mark some innovative way of collaborating and bringing people together? Or is it just a cool, high-tech time-waster? It is probably too early to tell, but it is fascinating to see agencies testing the realm of the possible.

The Buzz contenders

#2: Waxman vs. Doan, Round 2
With a fresh “invitation” to appear, Lurita Doan, administrator of the General Services Administration, will make another visit to Capitol Hill June 13. Meanwhile, her attorney and the Office of the Special Counsel spent the past week exchanging missives in which the parties were almost unable to contain their disdain.

#3: Hurricane season 2007
June also marks the start of a new hurricane season. National Weather Service experts predicted that this would be a bad year for hurricanes. Experts at the NOAA Climate Prediction Center said we can expect 13 to 17 named storms. Seven to 10 will become hurricanes, three to five of which could be classified as major, they said. They made similar predictions last year — and were wrong. We hope they’re wrong again.

#4: OFPP heeds SARA panel’s advice
The Office of Federal Procurement Policy wants more competition for contracts because too many agencies are spending billions on task orders and delivery orders without asking non-incumbent vendors for bids.

Paul Denett, OFPP administrator, asked agency chief acquisition officers last week to develop plans for maximizing competition. He also asked the Federal Acquisition Regulations Council to do five things to strengthen competition, including enhancing the competition rules for multiple-award contracts to ensure that agencies have at least three proposals to consider.

OFPP based its memo on recommendations by the Acquisition Advisory Panel, known as the SARA panel.

#5: Changing hands — Multimax and CDW
Just when merger and acquisitions in the government IT business appeared to have settled down, two companies decided to settle up. Harris is buying Multimax, a privately held technical-services company with major government contracts, for $400 million. Meanwhile, a private-equity firm, Madison Dearborn Partners, is set to buy CDW, the parent company of CDW Government, in a deal worth about $7.3 billion.

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