Why Government Should Take Advantage of Private Sector’s Technology Investments

By Clark 

The U.S. military’s information systems represent a significant amount of innovation, effort and well-intentioned planning. But leaders are constantly met with new technology in the commercial space that is faster, more efficient and easier to use.

The government clearly needs a better way to tap into commercial innovation. There are available technologies that could be rapidly inserted in defense systems but it takes anywhere from three to five years to see them gain traction.

Mapping and intelligence systems are areas where military technology could benefit from improved and lower cost commercial tools. Many of the current systems used by the Defense Department render two-dimensional maps and imagery at a general wait time of five to 10 seconds for each area an engineer is looking at. In contrast, commercial imagery and mapping software provides 3D data in one to two seconds. Terrain is visible in three-dimensional and the fourth dimension of time is available to show imagery literally changing.

An illustration of this challenge is what U.S. Southern Command officials experienced during their response to the Haitian earthquake. Individual departments were handicapped by tools that were single scope, not web based, and not interacting with one another. This led to duplication of effort throughout the command and a lack of real intelligence being aggregated and brought to the commander. A system’s ability to support an entire organization’s data is oftentimes related to how current it is. Even five-year-old systems did not have the mandate or the technical ability to connect seamlessly and share data.

Current technology is converging different tasks at a rapid rate. Gmail smartphone users can click on a restaurant address, for instance, and the phone provides directions in Google Maps.

Those seamless little connections take a fair amount of technology in the background but once implemented they make a user’s experience much more efficient and enjoyable.

Military mission planning and mapping tools are most certainly not connected to email and other communication systems, so the concept of getting a military command through email to move to a location and then just clicking on it to see how to get there on a map is not a common feature in existing defense systems.

Defense IT engineers will almost always have different ideas on the way to build a system. Individual experience with the customer’s environment, training on certain tools, past experience with technology, and even past interaction with vendors all play a role in what direction an engineer will want to go with a project.

This challenge is fundamentally responsible for many of the inefficiencies in defense systems today. It is compounded by the time it takes to get a technical team engaged on building a system. A detailed and tight “performance work statement” risks being irrelevant by the time it starts being executed. A broad PWS could result in the vendor taking advantage of the government and not delivering what is required. As technology changes in 12- to 18-month increments, the acquisition cycle is not agile enough to deliver the latest technology.

When vendors and government laboratories are forced into teams to work together it is easy to get along on the surface but pursue individual interests behind the scenes. While the motivations are different in government and industry, both groups do it to varying degrees.  

The “service oriented architecture” concept was the rage in 2005 and it created an environment where everyone appeared to be “plugging and playing” together in an attempt to eliminate stovepipes. But in many instances there was a surface level interaction that appeared coordinated while behind the scenes there were duplicate competing efforts around different web services, data services, data store and computing platforms.

Another challenge that must be understood is the cultural gap between the developers in the commercial arena and the defense space. Technology has cultural components. Developers who have been focused only on defense for 30 years have a mastery of what security is required, how the system is used and how the defense enterprise works. They grew up in a world where web and mobile technologies were not ubiquitous.

In contrast, commercial developers have little understanding of the specific defense security requirements or of the mission a defense system supports. They grew up using cell phones and the Internet in every facet of their lives. They have used Google Earth since they were teenagers and see that as the high water mark for visualizing geospatial data. They have built their own web pages and been immersed in the web through 3G and 4G networks. These are true digital natives.  

Some of the most capable, creative, and inventive system and software developers in this digital native group are discouraged by their experience with defense programs. Many of them simply refuse to even engage in working on defense IT systems. This brain drain must not be overlooked.

Government program managers need to step back from their efforts and find ways to incentivize industry teams to work together. Oftentimes, there is a “winner take all” mentality where different companies support the same program and are consistently jockeying beneath the surface for a bigger piece of the pie. Program managers also need to have unbiased technical advisors who can explain to them the reality of what is occurring beneath the surface of their programs. Industry managers need to do the same thing within their teams and develop a process where clear direction is given with regard to the architectural components of their systems. It is not uncommon for one company to have competing technical approaches within their own group.

Commercial technology that is capable of fitting into the standards and reference architecture for future government systems should be closely evaluated. If its total cost of ownership is less than what it would take for the government to build and sustain the capability on its own, the case to leverage it becomes compelling.  

The private sector worldwide, according to the latest Battelle R&D forecast, contributed $50 billion worth of IT research in 2011. Additionally, $139 billion was spent on electronics and hardware research and development, and $25 billion on aerospace and defense R&D. Of this amount, approximately $100 billion was spent on R&D in the United States. Leveraging the economies of scale that the commercial industry sector provides allows for lower costs.  

Costs decrease significantly when the technology is procured at an enterprise departmental level or when multiple departments coordinate to collectively purchase items.

Google was ranked third among the top IT spenders on R&D between 2008 and 2010 in the United States. One of its products, Google Earth, has been integrated as a desktop application in various military projects. Its web-based environment gives all users the same shared picture of data. A software application called iSpatial was developed in conjunction with the Google Earth web plug-in. Users can interface with any of their organization’s data in a 3D geospatial environment.

Rather than paying to rebuild all of the plumbing and to build the features that defense users need like blue force tracking, agencies can leverage existing technology. And the burden of keeping it up to date with new Google Earth releases and other technology updates does not fall on the government.

U.S. Southern Command’s use of iSpatial and Google Earth during the Haiti earthquake relief effort helped to coordinate more than 2,000 support personnel in under 48 hours with all on the same page and the same information.  

The increased adoption of smartphones for computing and Internet access has led to significant advances in software. As the government looks to take advantage of industry efficiencies, the management of mobile applications becomes an important topic.  

A novel approach to mobile applications is to break down the technology barrier that separates customers from the applications they operate. Software applications help them create customized mobile apps through a Web-based interface and then share the finalized app with other users.  This technology gives organizations greater control of their mobile work force.

Rather than having hundreds of separate mobile apps that are disconnected from each other, it is possible to achieve seamless communication among widgets that function in concert with one another. This avoids duplication and promotes re-use of features that are developed.

A.J. Clark is CEO of Thermopylae Sciences & Technology, based in Arlington, Va.

Topics: Infotech

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