Hitting a high-tech trifecta

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,

deviS' president.

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

database.

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

said.

"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

system."

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