Editorial: Praising experimentation

If you listened carefully last week, you could hear snickers and scoffs coming from some corners of agency offices when we learned that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was buying property in the virtual world of Second Life. We even heard one person ask how much CDC was spending on this effort. (CDC has spent about $2,000 to build its Second Life world.)Second Life is a virtual online world where people can fly around. It sometimes resembles the world of gaming more than the world of work, and getting officials to participate can be a tough sell. We also realize it can be difficult to attach a clear return on investment to projects such as Second Life and other Web 2.0 technologies and initiatives.A Forrester Research report last month found that many business organizations are facing these same questions. “Much of the value of a Web 2.0 deployment is incremental and ‘soft’ in nature, and as a result, clear business value measurement remains elusive,” according to the report, “IT Will Measure Web 2.0 Tools Like Any Other App.” Clearly, Web 2.0 tools must be assessed to determine if they are worth the time, effort, energy and money that people invest in them. Agencies also have to assess how Web 2.0 ranks among their other priorities. Taking all of that into consideration, we want to praise the brave few who are experimenting with Web 2.0 applications. At least three agencies have property in Second Life: CDC, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NASA’s Ames Research Center has been particularly innovative in its use of Second Life, which gives the center a global tool for reaching and educating people they might not otherwise reach. NASA has even hired an intern in Second Life.Forrester has it right. Some of the benefits are soft. One potential benefit, however, is that people who are most interested in Web 2.0 applications — young people — are the government workers of the future. The technologies will undoubtedly evolve. The valuable ones will flourish, and those that are a waste of time will wither. But the courageous few can teach the rest of us valuable lessons.Agencies must implement these applications wisely, but they have enough potential to make that investment worthwhile.
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