vGov for feds aims to be a more engaging online environment

Secure online Virtual Government will be place where federal employees can collaborate on projects, learn new skills and participate in meetings

Four government agencies — the National Defense University, Air Force, Homeland Security Department and Agriculture Department — have joined forces to create a secure online world known as Virtual Government.

Paulette Robinson, assistant dean of teaching, learning and technology at NDU's iCollege, is leading the university's involvement. She describes vGov as a place where federal employees will be able to collaborate with one another on projects, learn new skills and participate in meetings regardless of their location.

She recently spoke with staff writer Alice Lipowicz about the challenges of creating a secure collaborative environment and the many reasons for doing so.

FCW: How did you get started in virtual worlds?

Paulette Robinson: It was clear to me about 15 years ago, when I realized virtual worlds would have a growing and important role in education. I was in graduate school at the University of Maryland, College Park.

I’ve been thinking about participating with information in a different way for a quite a long time. My dissertation was Web-based; it was a study on students in the online environment. The first two chapters could be started anywhere. I wanted the whole dissertation to be a different experience each time.

FCW: You’ve said webinars are boring. How are virtual worlds better?

Robinson: In virtual worlds, you have a sense of the person being there and of establishing a working relationship. You have chat and [voice-over-IP] abilities.

You can use virtual worlds for games, but I see the power of immersive learning, engagement and analytical workspace as being much broader than gaming.

FCW: What is happening at federal agencies?

Robinson: When I came to National Defense University, I was looking for federal agencies doing virtual worlds, and I came across Eric Hackathorn, virtual worlds project manager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who is a leader in this area. People were dealing with firewall problems. There was nothing to get people together.

We set up the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds in 2007. The consortium is about finding best practices and networking and finding resources so there is a community-of-practice group.

At the first meeting, about 40 people attended from 10 organizations, all federal. Later in the fall, we got 200 people. At the spring meeting, we had nearly 400.

We started live-streaming the conference in the spring of 2008, and we started putting the conference in Second Life. This year, we extended it to a Flash feed and a Microsoft Real-Time feed. We had over 6,000 hits to watch the live stream, 2,500 unique hits.

Our membership is about 1,600, and about two-thirds are federal.

More people participated in the conference by going to the live stream, not the virtual-world event, because of firewall and security issues. Ninety-nine percent of the federal employees involved cannot go to virtual worlds from their desktops at work.

FCW: How did the vGov project get started?

Robinson: It became clear that government couldn’t use virtual worlds unless something happened. We needed to have a virtual world with secure access and verified identities. It needed to be behind the firewall and for all organizations.

Most government problems are so complex you need multiple agencies to address them. Also, we can get economies of scale if we have more people in the virtual world.

Also, with a governmentwide virtual world, you can share content in a repository so that you don’t have to always be creating new content. If I help fund software for 3-D analytics for the virtual world, what I have invested in benefits the entire community.

FCW: What will be in vGov?

Robinson: At the moment, vGov is one environment with four different virtual worlds. There is different software for each world. Each of the four agencies involved is developing a different use case.

NDU is developing a use case for knowledge management and analytical workspace. We are taking a financial database from and having students choose how they want to visualize it. What these environments can do is immersive and interesting. One example is bar charts visualized in three dimensions.

The Homeland Security Department is doing cybersecurity training. USDA is doing continuity-of-operations training. The Air Force is building Fort Sam Houston for virtual medical education.

FCW: Will the training be delivered in a virtual classroom or something completely different?

Robinson: Some people will take the familiar route and show the avatars sitting in classrooms. The more interesting piece is the immersive learning. For NDU, we are doing an interactive model of an enterprise resource planning process for financial managers. It can be hard to visualize, so we are going to do it in three dimensions [and] have activities with the model.

FCW: Will there be interoperability among the four virtual worlds of vGov?

Robinson: You can have the same avatar. You can make a very realistic avatar using photos so it is recognizable. It will give the illusion of interoperability.

FCW: What kind of obstacles have you faced in getting vGov up and running?

Robinson: One of the first big hurdles is acquisition, getting multiple agencies into one pot. The federal government isn’t funded for interagency initiatives. We hope we can see some support for an interagency infrastructure.

At the moment, we have the USDA’s award of a multiple-year, multiple-award [indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity] contract for vGov.

FCW: When will vGov be up and running?

Robinson: I think it will be ready by end of summer. The environment has been created. We [at NDU] are loading software, configuring it and working on the 3-D modeling. The next step is to put it into the space and start connecting.

The next hurdle is getting everyone authenticated in the environment. USDA is beginning with e-authentication Level 2, [a National Institute of Standards and Technology standard]. You fill out an online form, then you see a certified person who sees you in life with your government ID, and then you are approved.

For the first year, for the NDU portion, we are probably going to sign up 200 to 300 people. The use cases are fairly minimal for the first year.

FCW: What do you think of the progress on vGov so far, and how does the future look?

Robinson: I am the chief evangelist. I’ve gone everywhere talking about vGov. We are now adding partners. Anyone who is interested is going to USDA and signing up as a partner.

This is the first time I’ve seen the federal government with money to spend on a virtual world understanding the need and what it can do for the government. I think there’s a corner that’s been turned.

Previously, a virtual world for government — like at [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and NASA — has been about getting information to citizens. There has been a clamoring for virtual worlds for government employees for collaboration and telework situations.

We need robust places for telework. We're getting new generations that are coming into the federal space that want engaging environments. I’m almost 60, and I understand the need to have a more interesting environment to work in. There needs to be something more satisfying than a webinar.

With all the agencies having to cut their budgets, virtual worlds are a viable way to reduce costs. A virtual world gives you a sense of being present. You can cut travel budgets but still have robust, immersive and engaging meetings.


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