The convergence of several rapidly evolving technologies is creating new potential for innovation at federal agencies, a group of senior government officials said at a technology and innovation forum held in Washington, D.C., April 24.

The accelerating adoption of cloud computing strategies, the consumerization and commoditization of IT, the integration of mobile devices and applications in the workplace, the rise of social media, and the need to process exponentially greater volumes of data are each unleashing new and more cost effective ways to work, the officials said.

But collectively, they are creating new possibilities to rethink how work and missions are accomplished within government, they said.

“It’s not any one piece,” that will transform agencies, said Michael Howell, deputy program manager at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “What’s possible with a mobile platform; what’s possible when you integrate GPS; what possible when you bring in big data (analysis) and the ability to query across video and voice–the synthesis of those technologies will have a synergy that any of one them wouldn’t have on their own,” he said.

Cloud computing is going to keep picking up steam,” said Dr. Simon Szykman, CIO of the Department of Commerce.

“Or fog,” interjected moderator Darren Ash, to a round of laughter. Ash is CIO for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and serves as president of AFFIRM, an educational trade group which hosted the forum.

Szykman said the evolution of virtualized desktops is an example of technology changes that are transforming IT management strategies in the workplace. Desktop virtualization–where the operating system, applications and data of an employee’s computer is actually run on remote servers–is not only paving the way for the adoption of cloud computing. It will also benefit as cloud computing becomes more mainstream and employees can simply subscribe to a standard package of computing services.

Similarly, he said, “We’re going to start to see things come out of mobility that weren’t anticipated,” he said.

“It used to be a lot new technology would start at the enterprise level,” he said. But the flood of consumer-driven mobile devices and applications into the workplace is upending many assumptions of how information technology should be deployed in the federal workplace. “We need to look at what we’re delivering and how we deliver it,” he said.

Pressed by Ash to identify newer technology developments that might spur further innovation, the panelists suggested several areas to watch.

“If you combine mobility with APIs (computing interfaces) and web services in a mobile platform, you can do things that just weren’t otherwise possible…such as how you get information from your customers,” said Kathy Conrad, principal deputy associate administrator at the General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technology.

Conrad said that GSA, through the federal government’s federated website,, is processing 8 million transactions every day from public queries of government information. “When you look at that and what people are looking for, it’s incredible what can be accomplished,” she said.

Add to that the volume of social media interactions between government and the public, which grew 458% year over year, to 55 million interactions, Conrad said, and it becomes clear that entire new avenues for innovating are opening for government.

“What we’re finding is that social media is incredibly valuable” in discerning what’s important and valuable to citizens, she said.

Richard Spires, CIO for the Department of Homeland Security, agreed that government technology has reached an unusual inflection point, where not only technology tools are changing dramatically, but so are the business models that rely on them.

“I think the business model changes are pretty profound,” he said, pointing to changes in the commercial marketplace. “As we move to more of consumption based model (for computing), I think that’s really going to accelerate.”

“I think we’ll see cloud providers come together to provide a variety of new services,” he said. “It takes the whole commodity discussion to a whole new level.”

One of many challenges that must be solved before those technologies can reach their potential is the need to more completely address the need for better identity management, as a core ingredient to using emerging systems securely.

But finding that solution solves a dual need, said Howell.

“We found the solutions to safeguard systems are also the key to sharing information,” said Howell. “If I automate the protections, I can automate search and discovery.”

Solving the need for better systems to map identity to data access is a “big push” for DNI and other agencies, said Howell. But the result will mean smarter data management, he said.
Spires said the National Information Exchange Model offered a good example of how federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are working toward common standards for sharing information.

It still remains “difficult to get the innovation at the edge (of organizations) to the core, said Spires. “My sense is that most government agencies are relatively risk adverse. The innovation that happens (tends to) happen a lot…out in the field. But they’re solving a problem at their location. The challenge is how to make that an enterprise solution.

Photo: Left to right: Michael Howell, Richard Spires, Kathy Conrad, Simon Szykman, Darren Ash.