Hitting a high-tech trifecta
- By Dan Caterinicchia, Dan Caterinicchia
- Jun 19, 2000
Some of the hottest buzzwords of the day are XML, Java and Linux, but even
the most savvy government CIO or industry analyst would be surprised to
learn that all three of those technologies are being used in a single, governmentwide
application called the Federal Exchanges Data System (FEDS/www).
Available to federal entities that sponsor international exchanges or
training activities, the innovative data management system, which was developed
on a shoestring budget, is being used by more than a dozen departments and
28 independent agencies.
The system uses a Java-based interface and Extensible Mark-up Language
(XML) to move data to and from a third-party-hosted server, which runs a
suite of open source software, including the Linux operating system.
The genesis of the system dates back to a 1997 Presidential Executive
Order that required agencies to improve the coordination, efficiency and
effec-tiveness of myriad U.S. government- sponsored international personnel
exchange and training programs.
The order created the nonpartisan Interagency Working Group (IAWG) within
the Department of State to spearhead the project and develop an electronic
clearinghouse for program information. The goal was to create better oversight
and accountability of the various international programs and to help allocate
federal resources more effectively.
Extremely limited funding dictated a creative approach to building the
system. So the IAWG (www.iawg.gov) tapped Development InfoStructure (deviS),
an Arlington, Va.-based solutions provider that proposed using a mix of
commercial and freely available open source software. The project cost about
$100,000, which ate up most of the IAWG's entire budget.
"The majority of our budget goes to computer support and technology,"
said Laura Shane, a staff analyst at the IAWG. "We have a small, lean, mean
shop here, and we told deviS that we only had a little money but needed
a powerful system with broad reach throughout government. And they came
up with the cheapest, fastest and best way to do things."
Cost loomed large in deviS' choice of technologies, but it was not the
only consideration. "Cost, advanced capabilities and flexibility were the
main reasons we used open source software and Linux," said Peter Gallagher,
The development of FEDS/www so far has involved three major phases,
according to Martin Hudson, deviS' vice president.
n In the first phase, participating agencies received a CD-ROM that
contained an electronic forms application. After the agency filled out the
electronic forms, the application produced a database file that the agency
then e-mailed to the IAWG, which then loaded the data into its internal
n In phase two, which occurred as the data collection was taking place,
deviS refined the back-end system that IAWG used to accept and manage the
data submitted by agencies.
n In the third phase, deviS added a Java-based client to act as the
front-end interface. Because the government couldn't support the Java applets
with its internal database, deviS hosted a new back-end infrastructure for
the system, based on open source software to keep costs down (see chart
on Page 44).
The choice to use Java for the agency-side client software instead of
the more common Web browser-based front end was based on performance, greater
interactivity and security requirements at the federal agencies, Hudson
"Browsers are an excellent interface for the World Wide Web and a great
publishing tool, but what they can't do very well is change with what you're
doing," Hudson said.
By using Java there is the initial download penalty to get the software
on the agency desktop computer, but the advantages compared to a browser-based
interface in this case are important. "[With Java] there's better security,
a more manageable environment and it allows them to use XML on the client
side, which having to rely on browsers wouldn't allow them to do," said
Michael Goulde, a senior consultant with the Patricia Seybold Group in Boston.
Agencies signing on
The electronic FEDS/www system is available to federal departments and
agencies that submit data on their international programs to the State Department.
However, some agencies still use the original paper-based system.
"I would estimate that more than 70 percent of the data provided to
us from these organizations will be entered by end users on the [FEDS/www]
system," Shane said. "Our goal, of course, is to reach 100 percent. By way
of comparison, when we first started collecting data [before FEDS/www],
we were using an old DOS-based system [and] I would estimate that less than
25 percent of the information in our database had been submitted electronically.
And I think even that is a generous estimate."
The IAWG releases the latest version of the new FEDS/www system in one-year
cycles in the fall or early winter to coincide with the fiscal year nature
of the data. The group also conducts training sessions whenever necessary.
Anthony Gresko, a program analyst at the Drug Enforcement Administration's
international training section, has been using the FEDS/www system for the
last six months and said that although the system is not without its glitches,
overall it's an excellent concept.
"I find it very easy to use, and anyone who is familiar with Windows
could figure it out," Gresko said. "But someone that's not really computer
literate might have some problems with it. The instructions were a bit rushed
and the online availability of help is not particularly thorough...but it's
a great concept."
Gresko said a similar system would have helped him at a previous job
that required collecting narcotics data from several federal agencies. "We
collected information from 15 different agencies, and if it all could have
been done by the end user online, it would have made my job easier."
The reception among federal users has been warm, but both deviS and
the IAWG consider the system to be a work in progress."There were some questions
about the user interface, but the [Java] upgrade should eliminate most of
those," Shane said. "For the most part, people are extremely complimentary
and really like how easy it is to use. Our data enterers run the gamut of
computer proficiency, and the degree of their proficiency is directly related
to their happiness with the system."
The goal for the near-term is improving the user interface. Next is
adding ad hoc reporting capabilities for expanded reporting and searching.
And for the long term, the IAWG wants to create a fully searchable database
with custom queries, which would reduce the dependency of agencies on the
IAWG staff to produce those reports, according to Shane.
"Any data management system is a work in progress," she said. "If the
users are not happy, it's not going to work, so we're constantly reacting
to user concerns and critiques, and constantly evolving and improving the