Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Federal CTO Prediction


OK, I'm going out on a limb here about a piece of real Inside the Beltway insider baseball: the name of the new federal chief technology officer. You should care, actually, because if this person reflects the spirit of the Obama presidency, he or she will soon be calling on all of us to help fix what's wrong, improve what's right and come up with what's next for technology in government. I recently opined that it didn't much matter who is named because in many ways, the new CTO will be all of us.

The Obama campaign and the Obama moment and the Obama approach all point to greater openness about the workings of government, more collaboration, more sharing and, finally, a call on Americans to quit shopping and step up to the challenges of reinventing democracy for the 21st century. But hey, no one likes to cede bragging rights, so I dropped a name in at the end of the piece as my prediction: Vivek Kundra. And now, guess what? he's suddenly gone all unavailable to the press. Here in Washington, that usually means either an indictment or an appointment. This guy is simply too busy as Washington, DC's CTO and too young and too clean to have an indictment, so I'm betting on an appointment: federal CTO.

And how cool is that?!? He's only been at the helm in DC since 2007. He's crazy innovative, he's daring and his dad was a high school teacher in the DC public schools for Pete's sake.

Here's my next prediction: procurement pre-solicitation conferences on YouTube.


Remember, you read it here first!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Welcome Pat on the Back


We sole proprietors on the publishing frontier, better known as bloggers, toil in relative obscurity. Having once run a print magazine with a full reporting and editing staff, art department and business operation to handle fulfillment and printing and delivery and promotion and ad sales, I find performing all those functions myself particularly frustrating and sometimes defeating.

There's so very much more I'd like to write about and collaborate on and chew over and attempt. My audience is small (though hugely valued) and I need time to learn how to entice new readers. It would be ever so wonderful to actually be able to make any sort of a living doing this, too.

So as I stumble along alone, it is truly wonderful when someone at a meeting or reception says they subscribe or cites something I've written. It's heart-thumpingly exciting when someone links to one of my posts or includes The Agile Mind in their blog roll. But being recognized by folks in the field, well, that is beyond thrilling. And that's what happened yesterday, when BeatBlogging.org includedThe Agile Mind on its Leaderboard for the week.

What's BeatBlogging? Here's its description:
Beatblogging.org is a project of NewAssignment.Net that examines how journalists can use social networks and other Web tools to improve beat reporting.

Every day we highlight innovative beat reporters on our nominees list. The best of the nominees make our weekly Leaderboard.

We look at the latest trends and how they can help journalists and journalism. We find real-world examples of social media helping journalists improve their beat reporting.

We also have podcasts where we interview journalists who are pushing the practice. We ask them what works and what doesn’t. We are always trying to figure out what is the return on investment for investing time in social media.
This week's list highlights a hardy band of us covering the government beat in new ways. I am very proud that The Agile Mind made the cut, especially given that BeatBlogging describes the Leaderboard as "a list of the most innovative beat reporters in the world." The underlying goal is to give other reporters and news organizations ideas about how to innovate. Humbling thought that my fledgling effort might give someone else ideas!

What's even more humbling is being recognized by a project created by Jay Rosen, the widely respected New York University professor who created PressThink, a prize-winning blog examining journalism in the throes of tectonic shifts. BeatBlogging is among the progeny of NewAssignment.net, a Rosen-created site for experimental open source collaboration between amateur and professional journalists in reporting the news.

So anyhow, this is a long way of saying thank you from the heart to BeatBlogging.org for the recognition. You probably have an idea how much it means to those of us out here working without a net, but you don't know how much it meant to me specifically. Now you do.

America 2.0

Andrew Sullivan was right last year when he wrote "Good bye to All That: Why Obama Matters." for the December issue of The Atlantic magazine. Sullivan could not have foreseen the role of the financial crisis in sweeping Obama into office. Who saw that coming? But he did predict the sheer importance of being Barak--his unique suitability for this moment, his singular ability to cross over the Vietnam War divide, to overcome the religious wars and to begin closing the racial chasm.

And Sullivan clearly saw the power of Obama as symbol of America. Here's how he put it:
What does he offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial—it’s central to an effective war strategy. The war on Islamist terror, after all, is two-pronged: a function of both hard power and soft power. We have seen the potential of hard power in removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. We have also seen its inherent weaknesses in Iraq, and its profound limitations in winning a long war against radical Islam. The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in.

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.
I usually write about virtual government in terms of the immersive Internet, social networking, games for training, and other matters Web 2.0. But today, I am deeply moved by America 2.0, this amazing place where white men and African Americans, and Latinos and young people and millions of brand new voters carried an African American man into our highest office.

This astonishing act of hope and belief and love of all that is good about the country overshadows all the YouTubes, MySpaces, Facebooks, wikis, Twitters, -pedias, synthetic worlds, serious games, multitouch screens, blogs and artificially intelligent agents that usually excite me so. The mere fact of President Obama opens lines of communications, opportunities for collaboration and most of all minds and hearts in ways none of that can.

Yes, day-after euphoria over what we have achieved will give way to the cold, brutish clanging and clashing of governance. But consider what Noah Schactman over at Wired's Danger Room blog already found out about the meaning of Obama.

In January, Shachtman sat next to a flag-level U.S. military officer at a conference about U.S. information operations. The officer, a Christian conservative and warrior in what he sees as a religious war against terrorism, praised Obama. Shachtman explains:
You see, this officer oversaw special operations work around the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. Sensitive stuff, that requires delicate negotiations. And already, just as one among many candidates for president, Obama was making this officer's job easier. Officials in other governments were more willing to provide his troops access to their countries. Foreign intelligence services were more willing to share information.
Just as a President Obama forces change in the way black Americans view this country and white Americans, he also bleeds away the hypocrisy that has so damaged us abroad.

What is this new place we live in, where crowds gather in cities, horns blare and we shout a new president's name from our porches into the night? What might we become after choosing a man who lauds the struggles of women and gay people while accepting such a heavy mantle? Have we finally left our agonizing teenage years of rebellion and contentiousness to enter a national adulthood?

In June, I wrote: "With Barack Obama clinching the Democratic nomination today, comes a rare return to the feeling that anything is possible here in Washington. It likely won't last long, but it's stirring and wonderful, like the fresh breeze after one of our sudden, thunderous storms washes the stale, humid air of summer." Now, in the crisp orange and auburn of autumn, the wind has come. It blows clean the trees and streets, chills the shorter days and longer nights, augurs the icy winter, but also the spring, when all becomes possible again.

Monday, November 3, 2008

NASA World


It's one small step in the realm of virtual worlds and online games, but one large step for government into that world: NASA has selected three teams to present proposals for creating a massively multiplayer online world to carry the space agency brand. NASA hopes its virtual world will attract young people to careers in science, technology,
engineering and mathematics (STEM) and thereby help build its future workforce. The request for proposals for the MMO project went out at the beginning of the year. Long a user of simulations for training within, NASA now hopes to employ them outside the agency to draw support. According to the RFP:
MMO games can help players develop and exercise a skill set closely matching the thinking, planning, learning, and technical skills increasingly in demand by employers. These skills include strategic thinking, interpretative analysis, problem solving, plan formulation and execution, team-building and cooperation, and adaptation to rapid change. Today’s students have grown up with digital technology and video games and are poised to take advantage of the MMO communications and community building tools to collaborate on complex projects.
The screenshot above comes from the virtual world Entropia Universe, which is one of the options NASA will consider as a host for its world. Entropia is run by Mindark, a Swedish company. Saber Astronautics, six-engineer firm in Denver that hopes to set up a satellite repair shop in space, heads the second team. Members include Australian IT and gaming shop, Nocturnal Entertainment (video of their Flowerworks game below) and another Aussie company, Big World, which makes the middleware to create multiplayer online role-playing games.



The third team pairs North Carolina game-maker Virtual Heroes with Manitoba, Canada-based Project Whitecard. In August, the team won a contract from the Canadian Space Agency to create an online immersive game. According to the Project Whitecard press release:
The product will be designed to teach mathematics at the elementary and high school levels, featuring the famous Canadarm2 and Dextre robots. Canadian astronaut Julie Payette's role as the robotics lead on upcoming space shuttle mission STS 127 will be featured as students are immersed in the space robotics environment, take control of the virtual robotics systems, learn and apply age-appropriate math concepts and complete a series of robotics tasks similar to those assigned to Ms. Payette.
Virtual Heroes was among the original game firms involved in creating the Army's online recruiting game, America's Army. Serious games-maker Project Whitecard has created and won funding for an online interactive recreation of the Apollo Moon mission called Project Moonwalk.

The three teams will deliver line presentations on Nov. 7 at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Huge hat tip to Virtual Worlds News!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Pens Vs. Pandemics


Digital pens could prevent the next Avian Flu or West Nile Fever.

How's that? Yep, digital pens. You might have heard some of the growing buzz among tech writers about a new one, the Pulse from a company called Livescribe. Essentially they are devices that look like standard pens but use digital cameras, wireless positioning technology or special paper, even digital recorders to let users capture, store and transmit to their PCs whatever they have written. You can learn about the technology in detail from "Uniting the Paper and Digital Worlds," a new article in "Computing Now" from the IEEE Computing Society.

For those of us who take notes for a living, having a pen that can upload our scribbling to a computer in searchable form is a godsend. But for African farmers and herders, it's a matter of life and death.

Especially in Southern Africa, keeping livestock alive and healthy is both a struggle and an economic and human imperative. Some 60 percent of the population there depends on livestock production to survive. Not only is demand for livestock products growing within Africa, but African countries increasingly depend on livestock exports to fund development.

But until recently, the region has lacked the means to keep livestock free from diseases that could devastate herds and flocks and, by spreading to humans, could result in pandemics. Veterinarians are few--Malawi, for example, has none in its rural areas. Transmitting data about animal health to the government was tough without Internet access or even well developed phone systems. In many cases it took months. And in that time, infections could take a terrifying toll.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Regional Emergency
Livestock Officer Fred Musisi and Phil Fong, the UN Regional Data Information Coordinator, struggled to overcome the communications problem. Fong learned of a digital pen that could transmit data via cell phone or the Internet when he faced a similar data reporting problem while working on the South African census. The pen did the trick then, so the two men applied it to the livestock crisis.

Here's how Financial Times described their experiment in a Sept. 21 story on FT.com:
The solution, provided by Xcallibre, a subsidiary of the South African company Data World, used digital pen and paper technology from Anoto that could collect the data as the workers wrote it down, and then transmit it over the mobile network to a central server. An 18-month pilot, which received funding from the South African government, was run with 35 field workers in five countries: Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania.
A UN Food and Agriculture Organization report quotes Musisi on the pilot program's success: “If there is a case of rabies or an outbreak of a deadly disease, a field worker can send the detailed surveillance data immediately only using a mobile. Worst case, if there is no mobile phone network nearby, the field worker has to move to a location with network or must find the nearest Internet connection. But no longer do they have to drive hours back to a capital city before the information can be confirmed."

According to the report, HIV/AIDS program workers now are mulling how to apply digital pen surveillance. Having tested the approach in countries with the toughest terrain, poorest communications infrastructure and worst conditions in Africa, Fong and Musisi expect it will be easily adopted elsewhere in the region.

And as I did in my last post about African computing ingenuity, I found myself thinking once again about how much easier it would have been to use digital pens for the 2010 Census than the handheld computers that have caused such disarray.

Working Virtually [UPDATED at 12:13 p.m.]


Talk about your multi-tasking! I'm writing this post while simultaneously attending the Cognos Virtual Government Forum and chatting with a Grant Thornton staffer whose virtual booth I stopped by while passing through the virtual exhibit hall at the virtual forum. Whew! Enough virtual. Henceforth let's stipulate that most places I refer to in this post exist on the Web, not in the real world.

I wrote about this forum for Nextgov.com's blog recently, so I felt I had to attend at least some of it. Now I am waiting for the opening address by John Kamensky, late of the Clinton administration's National Performance Review and now of IBM's Center for the Business of Government.

Meanwhile, this seems an appropriate moment to muse about working in another virtual environment, Second Life. Erica Driver, a former Forrester analyst, has set up a new analysis firm called Think Balm, focused on the immersive Internet. Better to find out what that means from her here, but in short, it's all things 3D and virtual online. I found her work at Forrester to be smart and insightful, so I've continued following her as the new firm evolves. She is a tad more sold on immersive spaces for work than I am, but refreshingly, her enthusiasm is buttressed by facts.

Just a few days ago, Driver blogged about a new study suggesting that work-related teaching and learning, collaboration and meetings all can be done effectively in Second Life. The Social Research Foundation, a nonprofit, surveyed 1,298 Second Lifers who participate in the foundation's First Opinions Panel and found 16 percent of them use the virtual world for work. A third of those folks said more than half their time in Second Life is spent working. More than a third reported using the environment not just to collaborate, but to work together on visualizing data and concepts in 3D, 17 percent use it for recruiting and interviewing and 12 percent for managing real-world systems, Driver reports.

The study, along with her own work, makes Driver bullish on enterprise adoption of the immersive Internet:
ThinkBalm foresees that enterprise use will be mainstream in five years. The main reasons for this are 1) convergence of hardware, software, and network bandwidth, which make immersive technologies accessible on a widespread basis, 2) the prevalence of social networking, which allows Immersive Internet experts and advocates to find each other and share ideas, learnings, and best practices, and 3) an economic downturn, which will favor IT investments that result in hard dollar cost savings.
One important caveat: Driver is writing here not just about Second Life, but about immersive environments in general. She is tracking two dozen sellers of such platforms.

Skeptics (like my friend and colleague Allan Holmes, Executive Editor of Nextgov.com) continually call for proof that people actually learn as well or better in virtual settings than in brick and mortar classrooms. It's a legitimate request, and one that academia is beginning to address. Perhaps the best work has been done at Stanford Medical School, where researchers have found that "virtual [emergency department] environments fulfill their promise of providing repeated practice opportunities in dispersed locations with uncommon, life-threatening trauma cases in a safe, reproducible, flexible setting."

And now, there's research from Penn State suggesting that solving problems in a virtual space might take a bit longer than in the real world, but can come up with better solutions. Researchers set up 10 teams working face to face, 10 teams teleconferencing and 12 teams in Second Life.

Using a mathematical problem finding and solving video trainer, the groups had to figure out how to rescue an injured eagle. Even though they could only communicate via text and had to learn how to use the keyboard to move their avatars, the Second Life teams came up with the most accurate answers.

Nothing hugely definitive yet, but lots of intriguing hints that Driver might just be onto something.

On the other hand like many people who visited the Cognos forum, I never was able to attend John Kamensky's talk. I kept getting an error message whenever I hit the "attend" button. The support folks told me to download and updated version of Flash, but doing so would have meant I had to close all my browser windows. That would have prevented me from writing this post and a host of other things, hence eliminating any advantage of attending a conference virtually instead of physically. Ah well, I suppose I could have gotten hung up on the Metro, too!

THIS JUST IN: Just received an email from high-end consulting firm McKinsey about a new study, "How IT Can Cut Carbon Emissions." Though they didn't consider the use of immersive environments, the implication is clear from what they did discover: "We studied the possibility of reducing emissions by “dematerializing” physical goods and processes through telecommuting, video conferencing, Internet shopping, and downloading content rather than using paper, CDs, DVDs, and so on to covey it. We found that these kinds of substitutions cut emissions significantly—by 0.5 metric gigatons a year."

It's not the kind of savings that can come from making manufacturing, electricity grids, buildings and truck fleets more efficient, but it's nothing to sneeze at either!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Africa's Leading a Computer Revolution We Cannot Ignore


Shackled to our desktop and laptop computers, we in industrialized nations might just be missing the next computer revolution. Wouldn't it be deliciously ironic if developing countries leapfrogged ahead of us by using inventiveness born of the need to make-do with less? It might very well already be happening in the form of mobile-phone-based computing.

With the advent of the iPhone, Americans have begun thinking about the broader potential of mobile phones, but in the developing world, especially in Africa, mobile phones have become the computers of choice. Joel Selanikio, star of the video above and a new hero of mine, calls it the "invisible computer revolution."

He notes that at the end of last year, developing countries had created an international network of wirelessly connected computers--mobile phones. While we think of them primarily as a medium for voice (and increasingly typed chat) conversations, Africans are making them much much more. Selanikio says the "one laptop per child" effort might just be left in the dust as the size of the mobile phone network continues to explode. He points out that sub-Saharan Africa, where neither laptop nor desktop computers are at all common, is the fastest growing cell phone market in the world.

Another new hero of mine, Nathan Eagle, an MIT research scientist, points out that Africans are jumping at the chance to learn mobile phone programming to develop the kinds of applications uniquely suited to meeting everyday needs in their own countries--needs no American or European programmer is likely to envision.

There's plenty here for the U.S. government to ponder. An easy question: Why can't the Census Bureau manage to move its citizen survey onto fancy handheld computers, while Selanikio's tiny nonprofit has been able to make an easily user-modified free public health survey software now being used on cheap cell phones all over Africa? Why hasn't the U.S. disaster response system put Selanikio's EpiSurveyor (about which more below) into place on every emergency health responder's cell phone? Why aren't federal agencies bringing smart African programmers here to teach them how to better serve low-income Americans via cell phones or having Eagle set up programs to teach mobile programming to youngsters in need of bootstrapping here at home?

Selanikio's certainly no stranger to the federal community. He's a former Centers for Disease Control epidemiologist, Public Health Service officer and chief of the Health and Human Services Department post-9/11 command center.

DataDyne, Selanikio's nonprofit organization, has created open source software that makes mobile phones into public health survey tools. The EpiSurveyor software first was designed to work on personal data assistants like the Blackberry or Palm, but now is moving to cell phones. That's huge in Africa, where mobile phones are huge.



With more than 280 million mobile subscribers in 2007, Africa had an overall cell phone penetration rate of 30 percent, according to Africa Telecoms News. There are more than 3 billion mobile subscribers worldwide, a 35 percent penetration rate. The African mobile explosion might seem surprising, but phones there are relatively cheap--as little as $20 new and much less used--and 75 cents can buy 10 minutes of off-peak calling in Kenya, for example.

Many who can't afford even those low rates simply buy a card to plug into someone else's borrowed, shared or rented handset. Phones are becoming a vital means of exchange. M-Pesa is an example. The service allows far-flung Africans to pay cash to a phone dealer in one town, who sends a code to the intended recipient of funds. That person or business redeems the code for cash from another M-Pesa dealer. The service, run by mobile carrier, Safaricom, Ltd. (owned by British multinational Vodafone), signed up 1.6 million users in the year after its March 2007 launch. Economists believe the opportunities created by mobile phone expansion cause economies to grow, perhaps by as much as 0.6 percent for every 10 percent increase in mobile penetration.

And that brings us back to Dr. Selanikio, who noticed the horribly inefficient and slow paper-based health information systems of the developing world. The obvious answer was to take advantage of mobile phones. His EpiSurveyor can be easily downloaded and adapted by national health ministries and their field workers. The system obliterates the need for error-prone data entry by hand and for paper.

It helped Kenyan health officials prevent a polio outbreak in 2006, when a refugee from violence in Somalia carried the disease into a Northeastern province after it had been eradicated 20 years earlier. Officials used the program to decide where vaccinations should be given and to control supplies.

And Nathan Eagle wants many more such applications to be developed by Africans themselves. His Entrepreneurial Programming and Research on Mobiles program offers a variety of mobile phone programming classes in 10 sub-Saharan African countries. It also is teaching courses in creating applications based on cell phone text capabilities. And it operates txteagle, which connects Africans with cell phones and extra time with companies seeking simple text-based help, such as Nokia, which seeks African translation assistance, or health agencies seeking more effective ways of delivering services. The companies pay for the aid.

It's not hard to think up ways federal agencies could use such a service to improve their own services while helping people receiving Medicaid, food stamps and other assistance at the same time. Not surprisingly, Google already has figured out there's a market here, though not the mobile phone angle.

C'mon, Uncle Sam, here's a chance to grab the reins, head up another revolution like the Internet and find some efficiencies and much needed infusion of income for the growing number of hard-hit Americans. What's not to like?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Gamers Make Good Citizens


Nearly every American teenager between the ages of 12 and 17 plays computer, Web, portable or console games. Those who play them together in the same room are more often to become civically and politically engaged. It seems counterintuitive given games' bad rep as violent, addictive and isolating, but that's the chief finding of a new study by the Pew Internet and Life Project and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Released Sept. 16, "Teens, Video Games and Civics" finds that half of kids play online games with people they know offline and that almost two-thirds of them go online for political information, are committed to civic participation and have raised money for charity.

What accounts for this surprising twist on the common perception of gaming? Something Pew calls, "civic gaming experiences." While the study found that 63 percent of teen reported encountering aggressiveness, and 49 percent ran into hateful, racist and sexist activity while playing games, 85 percent also saw other players step in to stop the bad actors. This helping behavior is one of the experiences that inclines teens toward good citizenship, Pew reported. Others include playing games that teach about social problems and issues or that invoke moral or ethical decisionmaking and those that require running communities, cities or nations or organizing groups or guilds.

Another indicator of deeper civic engagement is game related social interaction, Pew found. Seventy percent of players who read or visit Web sites about games, review them and discuss them online also go online to get information about politics or current events. This group also is more interested in politics than gamers who don't contribute to online gaming communities.

What's more, while educational opportunities promoting civic and political involvement tend to be centered in affluent white schools, civic gaming is much more equitably distributed. Income, race and age were unrelated to the amount of gaming experience; only gender was, with 81 percent of boys, but only 71 percent of girls reporting frequent or average civic gaming experiences.

As a nation we might be bowling alone and participating less, but it looks like kids are gaming together and getting involved.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Get Your Free PowerPoints Here!


Brilliant! PowerPoint users rejoice!

Here's a great data visualization tool we'll all benefit from and we can have a voice in creating it. While I'm referring here to a new tool, "We Build Your Presentation," I'm pretty excited about it's home, "The Big Money," too. It's a smart-looking and -sounding new business news site from the folks at Slate.

This isn't the first nor will it be the last Web site to offer viewers free and easy PowerPoint slides, but with Slate's pedigree, it's probably going to be one of the best.

What I love about features like this one is their emphasis on making important data understandable and putting it within reach of, well, everyone, or at least everyone who can get to the Web. TBM's version has the added crowdsourcing advantage of letting users vote on what data they'd like to see clearly displayed. Since I am on a National Academy of Public Administration panel creating an augmented reality game to engage college students about the national debt crisis (I know, I know, sounds impossible), I would like to see TBM start tackling that, especially the likely outcomes of the path we're on, those of the presidential candidates and those suggested by the "experts." (Why do I have the nagging feeling that crowdsourcing might just beat all these options?)

Here's TBM's editor, James Ledbetter, explaining "The Big Money" and the new presentation builder. I've already added the site to my bookmarks bar, give it a once over!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Flying Real UAVs From a Virtual World


By now, we all have a mental image of how unmanned aerial vehicles are flown. Some young military service member sits closeted in a small, dark room with lots of camera and data feeds displayed on glowing screens and guides the Predator or other bird with a flight stick from thousands of miles away. But that's not quite right and omits perhaps the most important part of the experience: the intense, continuous attention to a sometimes unchanging scene over many hours and the degree of concentration and patience and visual acuity needed to "see" whatever it is the UAV is looking for and/or at.

So much information and attention are involved, in fact, that it takes not one, but two pilots to operate each drone.

Robert Kaplan captured some of the grim reality in a terrific September 2006 story in The Atlantic, "Hunting the Taliban in Las Vegas." Here's a look from his visit to a camouflaged trailer at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada where two Air Force pilots were flying a Predator over Afghanistan:
"There were grim, colorless computer bays in freezing, pulsing darkness—a three-dimensional world of flashing digits from light-emitting diodes. Like sub drivers, Pred pilots fly blind, using only the visual depiction of their location on a map and math—numerical readouts indicating latitude, longitude, height, wind speeds, ground elevation, nearby planes, and so forth. The camera in the rotating ball focuses only on the object under surveillance. The crew’s situational awareness is restricted to the enemy on the ground. Much of the time during a stakeout, the Pred flies a preprogrammed hexagon, racetrack, bow tie, or some other circular-type holding pattern."

Soon, this scene will change. The trailers likely will be abandoned, probably in favor of one or more 10-foot-by-10-foot-10-foot rooms with projectors illuminating all four walls, the ceiling and floor. Pilots likely will wear special glasses to render the projected images into a 3D immersive virtual environment. And they will control not one but several, possibly as many as eight, UAVs at the same time.

An Iowa State University team is developing the virtual environment in hopes of reducing the mental fatigue pilots suffer while monitoring a tangle of information on a welter of screens. Inside the room, pilots will see their UAVs, the airspace around them and the terrain below, as well as feeds from instruments, cameras, radar and weapons systems.


The 3-D audiovisual stereoscopic facility lives at ISU, where lead researcher on the project, James Oliver, heads the Virtual Reality Applications Center. The C6, as the wrap-around virtual display is known, was refurbished over the last several years thanks to Air Force funding. But it's used by many other federal agencies, as well.

The National Science Foundation is sponsoring Meta!Blast, a research application to let people walk around in plant cells to see what happens when researchers make molecular changes.

The National Guard wants to use C6 to let soldiers do battlefield walk-throughs before missions or deployments.

A combined Air Force and Iowa National Guard project, Virtual Battlespace, pulls together data about about land- and air-based forces and targets and sensor feeds and permits views from multiple perspectives. VRAC is working on a multi-touch table to serve as a controller for UAVs in the 3D space.

C6 has myriad commercial applications as well, but what lights up my imagination is its potential for helping people visualize data and the effect of human interventions. Given a complete enough simulation of the real world, walking through it should let users see relationships and consequences the might not otherwise imagine in urban planning, medicine, ecology, and who knows what else. Embedded Technology magazine has a fuller treatment of current uses here.

Nota Bene: You can find the articles I used in writing this post on the left column of the blog under the heading, "Recommended Reading." From now on, I'll be posting there links to stories and Web pages I find intriguing, informative and useful in my explorations of virtual government. The widget is courtesy of Publish2, a terrific journalism project by my friend Scott Karp, the wizard of Web 2.0 and beyond. By all means, have a look at P2.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

YouTubing the Office



Coming soon, to an office near you, Web video about your job and workplace--a private YouTube just for your organization.

Google Video for business, launched Labor Day, allows any company, agency, nonprofit, you-name-it to host its own internal YouTube for the enterprise. For a mere $50 a seat, Google will give an organization a secure spot to store videos created by employees, the same viewers and ease of uploading as YouTube users get, but the videos are not available for the public to see.

Without a doubt, many employees soon will be viewing, rather than reading, quarterly reports, messages from the agency head or CEO, instructions, emergency missives, training and more. Heck, the Office of Personnel Management might just film the snowfall as evidence the next time it closes the government in Washington! Just like YouTube, this new app lets viewers rate and comment on videos, no doubt giving rise to a whole new form of office etiquette: artfully responding to videos of higher-ups. Hint: rate 'em high!

As easy as it is to use YouTube once you've got video to share, it's now becoming just as simple to shoot the stuff. Macs come with built-in video cameras--just tilt the screen and shoot. And the new Flip video camera is supremely user-friendly and lets amateur Spielbergs just plug it into the USB port and upload directly to YouTube and now to YouTube for business.

To be fair, there is another company in this market, a 2007 startup called Veodia, but it's hard to imagine Google won't own the space now that it has entered it.

For a workforce as large and far-flung as Uncle Sam's, this promises to be a huge boon for communications, if agencies adopt it. And who knows, with the right acquisition strategy--say a Networx contract for Google--agencies might just get YouTubed for a song. If the District of Columbia can afford it . . .

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Setting Up in Second Life: A Guide for Federal Agencies



Federal agencies increasingly are curious about and are exploring virtual worlds. Some, like the State Department, are using them to interact with people they might not already be reaching. Others, like NOAA, CDC, and NASA, are doing public education, promotion, and even some collaborative work there.

Given the growing interest, I thought it would be a useful experiment in virtual journalism and virtual government to tell the story of one agency's experience establishing a presence in a synthetic world, in this case, Second Life. Above you'll see the first in a series of Webcasts I am creating to tell the story of how the National Defense University's Information Resources Management College bought islands, designed an environment, built buildings and now is hosting students in Second Life.

The three main characters hardly are the type of folks most of us imagine as denizens of an online world, yet they all had established in-world identities as avatars before they embarked on their official journey into Second Life. In my series, you'll hear of the challenges they faced buying virtual land through the very real federal procurement process, their personal struggles with creating appropriate appearances for their alternate Second Life personas, the communications hurdles in getting synthetic world designers to create space for a very serious institution. The stories are sometimes funny and frustrating, sometimes insightful and encouraging but always useful for anyone thinking ahead to a future when the real and the virtual aren't nearly to separate..

Second Life might not end up being the virtual world where most federal work is accomplished, but it's a sure bet that more and more of that work soon will be done virtually somewhere.

I hope you enjoy the first in the series, and if so, I hope you'll share the url with others. Either way, I invite your comments and suggestions and urge you to come back to see the next episodes of "Setting Up in Second Life."

UPDATE, Sept. 2: While I remain skeptical about the extent to which agencies and businesses will be able to use virtual worlds such as Second Life for "real" work, there's some pretty impressive evidence in new statistics from Canada. The Canada Border Services Agency is conducting training for border-crossing guards in Second Life and reports that in 2007 without using Second Life, students' average grade for interview skills was 58 percent. In 2008, after using the Second Life simulation, the average interview skills grade rose to 86 percent. More extensive coverage can be found on New World Notes. Here's a look at how the Canadians are doing it:


Hat Tip: Virtual Worlds News

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Google Earth Threat





Some of us can remember back to a time when our parents were thoroughly spooked by satellite photos showing Soviet missiles being delivered to Cuba. The scary, grainy black and whites lent even more drama in 1962 to what has become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The shots from high out in space had to be authentic--only the government was up there after all.

Well, not so much today. In fact, governments are all shook up about the ease with which commercial entities are picturing every corner of Earth for whomever is willing to pay. Of greatest concern: Google Earth. The second photo up top, of the U.S. Air Force's top-secret testing site, Area 51 in Nevada, offers a case in point. It came via Google. "The Google Controversy--Two Years Later," a July 30 report from the U.S. Director of National Intelligence's Open Source Center, details the depth of concern about Google and its ilk and the steps nations are taking in response. Kudos to the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News blog for publishing the paper and linking to many of its references!

After a Google spokesperson said in 2006 that the Earth-picturing site "presents no appreciable threat to security" because, hey, high-res satellite and aerial imagery is all over the place nowdays if you can pay, OSC stepped up its monitoring. Two years ago this month the center got hold of actual footage showing Google Earth being used by Iraqi insurgents to plan attacks on U.S. forces. In September 2006, the center reports, Al Qaeda-linked militants blew up four car bombs while attacking an oil facility in Yemen after planning the attack using Google Earth.

By 2007, The Chinese government had begun combing online mapping sites for images of its secrets and raising heck with Google, which a Chinese spokesperson praised as "very responsive." No surprise there given Google's overall obsequiousness toward China. But other spots get blurred, too. For example, Bahrain blocked access to Google Earth in 2006 for a few days because the rich didn't want their lavish holdings exposed.

According to "Blurred Out: 51 Things You Aren't Allowed to See on Google Maps," a piece in the July 15 issue of IT Security, other places that have won obscurity include Playland Amusement Park in Rye, New York, the White House, the U.S. Vice President's residence, a host of national security sites worldwide and the home of the Borings in Franklin Park, Pa., after they claimed Google Maps' Street View feature "violated their privacy, devalued their property and caused them mental suffering by posting images of a private road in front of their house."

Meanwhile OSC says, Thailand, India and China are creating their own versions of Google Earth. And countries, including India, China and Norway, are taking evasive action such as camouflaging facilities, hiding them in mountains and the like.

For a vastly more detailed and entertaining and authoritative job of delving into this subject that I can do here, see the terrific story by science writer extraordinaire Sharon Weinberger In Discover July 21: "Can You Spot the Chinese Nuclear Sub?" It's such a good story, in fact, that the OSC report opens by quoting extensively from it.

And that's a story in itself: There is such a center capitalizing on open source material and it's finding the really good stuff out there by the best journalists. Good for the DNI!

What caught my interest in all this is my growing feeling that the next version of the Internet might just be something that looks a lot like Google Earth. In a fascinating conversation August 1 with Don Brutzman, of the Modeling, Virtual Environments and Simulation Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., I learned of his project to essentially recreate Google Earth in order to use it as a training and simulation ground for the U.S. military. He and his confreres in the Web 3D Consortium want nothing less than to make the Web itself the next virtual world. The kicker is, they don't want anyone. including Google to own it. Meanwhile, that appears to be exactly what Google wants to do.

It's a fascinating tug of war, mostly being played out behind the scenes by folks far too deep in the worlds of XML and KML and whatnot for most of us to understand. And yet, it could very well be the struggle that determines the course of, well, the Earth, or at least the one we get to inhabit online.

I found it hard to truly wrap my mind around the notion of Web 3D and Web 3D Earth, so here's a video that at least gets at some of it for those as mentally challenged as I:




Sources: Cuba photo-John F. Kennedy Library; NARA; Area 51 photo-Discover magazine online, July 21, 2008

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Spore for Soldiers, or The "YouTubing of Games"



David Kushner over at the IEEE Spectrum blog "The Sandbox" has a smart analysis of a gaming trend he calls "the YouTubing of games." It recently set me to thinking about how the evolution of immersive online experiences is running on many parallel tracks.

One of them is user authoring. Kushner has been writing for a year off and on about the expansion of user authorability--players' ability to create content--in video games. As he noted last year, Unreal Tournament III from Sony and Electronics Arts Halo 3 both let users in, enabling them to create mods in the former and film gameplay in the latter. Now, he writes that a couple of "YouGames," as he calls them, have won Game Critics Awards, potentially opening the floodgates to games that make players into gods.

Perhaps the most potent example is Spore from Electronic Arts. I haven't played it yet, but I have watched others doing so on YouTube (of course!). What I've seen is amazing. This is a game created by Will Wright, who made the most successful PC game ever, Sims. In its second iteration, the game allowed players to see the genetic evolution of the "people" who populate the game. Players create them, house them, watch them interact and, yes, mate.

Spore goes Sims one further, allowing players to create new life forms and then evolve them. In other words, to play God, as the not so subtle trailer from EA above implies.

Here's how the company puts it:
With Spore you can nurture your creature through five stages of evolution: Cell, Creature, Tribe, Civilization, and Space. Or if you prefer, spend as much time as you like making creatures, vehicles, buildings and spaceships with Spore’s unique Creator tools.

CREATE Your Universe from Microscopic to Macrocosmic - From tide pool amoebas to thriving civilizations to intergalactic starships, everything is in your hands.

EVOLVE Your Creature through Five Stages - It’s survival of the funnest as your choices reverberate through generations and ultimately decide the fate of your civilization.

EXPLORE your world and beyond - Will you rule, or will your beloved planet be blasted to smithereens by a superior alien race?

SHARE with the World - Everything you make is shared with other players and vice versa, providing tons of cool creatures to meet and new places to visit.

While Spore is a single player game, your creations and other players’ creations are automatically shared between your galaxy and theirs, providing a limitless number of worlds to explore and play within.

Yes, yes, you say, but what has this to do with soldiers?

What so struck me about Spore is that I've been doing a great deal of interviewing and investigating about another game development, this one growing under the benevolent sun of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Ironically, it's called Real World. I've already written about it, and I will be producing a video adding great detail. But right now, I am struck by similarities in the way DARPA's project and the gaming industry are moving.


In brief, the idea behind Real World is to cut the time it takes to create a gaming software-based mission rehearsal tool, or simulation, down to nearly nothing.

Real World will be a game creation platform designed to allow soldiers in the field to use satellite imagery, UAV images, photographs, blueprints or even a hand-scrawled picture or a map scraped in the sand with a stick to create an immersive location in which to practice an upcoming mission, plan a strategy, test tactics or envision enemy or civilian behavior. The hallmark of the platform is that it is designed to be almost completely user authorable.

Now, it's clearly unrealistic to expect deployed troops to create for an immersive environment the equipment, weaponry and other items they use from scratch on the fly. That stuff will get into the game via its creators, the folks at Total Immersion Software in Alameda, Calif. and/or other companies. And the physics of the game--how various different calibers of ammunition will behave when they hit concrete, versus wood, versus a human being, for example, also will be built in. But the details of an ambush just hours after it happened? Those the unit that suffered the casualties can put in and use to avoid the next one, or send them back to units-in-waiting as training tools.

In both Spore and Real World, "players" become godlike. In the former they create life-forms and "evolve" them to enhance their survivability. In the latter, they create scenarios and environments in which human life-forms can practice in order to survive.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Real Work in Virtual Worlds: A Guide


Trust the ever serious Brits to come up with a smart, succinct primer for organizations interested in doing business in virtual worlds. DADENLIMITED, is a Birmingham, England firm providing virtual world advice, consulting and design-build services. Their primer is "Virtual Worlds and Serious Business: A White Paper and 9-Point Business Plan." You can read it here.

It includes a very good and brief explanation of the difference between virtual worlds, such as Second Live, and virtual world platforms such as Olive and Second Life Grid, which organizations can use to construct their own synthetic environments. While virtual worlds are open to all, platform-created environments usually are by invitation, thus leaving to their owners the task of generating participation.

The paper also handily addresses the nine points it suggests organizations address before venturing into virtuality:
➢What's The Business Benefit (or why get involved and what do
you want to get out of it)
➢ Who's the audience?
➢ What are the constraints?
➢ Which world?
➢ What's the engagement model?
➢ How are you going to implement?
➢ How are you going to market?
➢ How are you going to manage visitors?
➢ How are you going to manage long term?

DADEN (Dutch for "achievement" and "action") chief David Burden also does a good job explaining why a number of companies have abandoned their early Second Life efforts and others have come in. He draws useful lessons from early missteps, too.

What's more, the paper is a joy to read, sprinkled as it is with lovely Britishisms such as "bespoke," "whilst" and the like.

DADEN also recently came up with an in-world Second Life Web browser, allowing people from all over the world to view and wander the Web together via their avatars.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Web 3.0 Beta



Earlier this month, IBM and Linden Labs, owners of virtual world Second Life, made a bit of history and likely paved a small part of the path to the 3D Internet. They enabled a group of Second Life avatars, dubbed "gridnauts" to teleport from a Second Life preview grid, a location separate from the main Second Life world, to another world running on an OpenSim server. So what? Well, as the Second Life blog put it, "an open standard for interoperability based on the Open Grid Protocol would allow users to cross freely from one world to another, just as they can go from one Web site to another on the Internet today."

But Linden Labs faces some major stumbling blocks in its effort to open up and enable the next Internet. Chief among them is that Second Life is peopled with folks who buy and sell articles of clothing, avatar "looks" and innumerable articles they have created and store in their avatars' inventories. The creators and owners don't want those things transported freely to other virtual worlds where ownership rights could be lost. In fact, the Second Life gridnauts landed in the OpenSim world without any of their clothes for just that reason.

What's more, almost all the "land" in Second Life is owned by Linden and leased by residents. That monopoly keeps the company cash-flow going. In fact, only IBM "owns" regions in Second Life, hosting several regions on its own servers. All other landowners actually are renting space on Linden's servers.

Ownership of land and things in Second Life is a knotty problem, and one that could prevent Linden from becoming the true leader in creating the next Web. IBM, on the other hand, just continues on its trajectory to become the backbone provider if its big bet on virtual worlds pays off.

OpenSim developers have recreated many of Second Life's features without the monopoly. Even before Linden made its viewer software open source in January, developers had begun enabling people to create avatars in a cheaper, but very similar, world. Eric Reuters, the Reuters correspondent embedded in Second Life has a nice explanation of the implications of all this for Linden here.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Virtual Training 3.0


I had a wonderfully engaging and fascinating conversation yesterday with Roger Smith, chief technology officer for the organization that buys all simulation and interactive-software-based training for the Army. His title belies the fact that Roger really serves as a chief visionary for Army training technology and that's the role in which he talked with me. We were broadcasting live on the Internet via a webinar hosted by Government Executive Events, part of the group built on Government Executive magazine, which I used to run.

The webinar itself was an adventure in virtuality. The staff with the webinar production company, On24, were in California, Roger was in Orlando and I was in the events office in the Watergate in Washington. We all hooked up via telephone and Internet and Roger and I conversed via phone, showed our slides and polls via presentation software on the Web and our audience listened in and watched from all over the country on the Web.

I have spoken before many large audiences, but until now, I always had been able to see their reactions and interact with them. Yesterday, our only interactions with viewers came via the questions they submitted as we conversed. Our audience of about 100 at its peak submitted 25 questions, though, all of them quite on point and many quite specific, so I know they were engaged. I don't know whether they were entertained or amused or bored at times nor whether we were pitching the presentation to the right level of understanding, though, and that made it hard to gauge timing and to calibrate the tenor of the presentation to their needs. On the other hand, the thought that we were were all over the country yet able to present a single face to people also in many places and time zones was exciting.

Not yet having attended any presentations in the virtual world (I know, shame on me) I can only imagine that doing so is in some ways like and in some ways better than conducting a webinar. I'll find out soon enough; I'm signed up to attend one to be conducted by a virtual business presentation firm, Clever Zebra, on the virtual world platform, OLIVE, which belongs to Forterra Inc. Regular readers will recognize Forterra as a company featured in my "Finding FOSE" video and my story, "Virtually There."

In any case, the webinar experience was enlightening and so was Roger's presentation. As I have written, he is a real guru when it comes to the way the evolution of technology is revolutionizing the way the military trains.

And that's as important for nonmilitary organizations as it is for Roger's customers. Government folks know that what starts in the Defense Department usually finds its way quickly into the balance of other federal agencies (think drug testing, pay reform, acquisition reform, etc.). So everyone involved with training or pondering how to more effectively impart information or visualize the effects of programs or policies before they are put in place should keep a close eye on Roger.

Yesterday, he framed his remarks around the effects four key forces are having on Army training. The Army is especially worth watching, of course, because it is being forced to innovate on the run in just about every area since it has more people in harm's way around the world than any other agency right now.

So Roger is watching and thinking about and experimenting with collaborative environments, game interfaces, service infrastructure and high-performance computing and how they each can make it possible for the Army to train more of its members more effectively and more often. That's no small task since there are a million of them--even if you train them in groups of 1,000, it would take 1,000 live or computer training events in a year just to touch each one once!

And military training isn't like responding to a search query, as Google does 380 million times a day, or serving up burgers as McDonald's does 47 million times a day. Creating a lifelike environment where equipment and weapons behave as they do in the real heat of battle to truly prepare soldiers and accurately rehearse missions takes high fidelity. The Army's National Training Center, in the California desert, is the gold standard training facility of all the world because it offers just such a world--in real time. But that very fact limits the number of soldiers who can train there and the number of times they can visit.

Roger's interest in gaming, simulation as a service, collaboration online and high-performance computing spring from a desire to spread the effects of NTC-like training to more people exactly when and where they need it. Thus, he spun a vision of moving training into more and more realistic, immersive online environments that could live on a network and be served to nits and individuals on demand, rather than forcing them to go to the simulation center as is now mostly the case, even with computer-based training. He'd like to see a good deal of the preparation and planning for training events moved onto wikis and blogs and to see lessons learned transmitted via YouTube.

Further, Roger is tinkering right now with using high-performance computing to enable simulation as a service and to support always-on simulation events for many customers at once. What's more, he would like to use high-power computing to simulate vastly larger events, even the populations of entire countries.

To hear more of his presentation about "Simulation 2.0," you can go to the event archive, register and watch the webinar yourself.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Virtual Worlds of Work



Sometime when we all were sleeping, 70 percent of large companies and nonprofits started using video games and other interactive software to train and educate employees. That piece of relatively astonishing news came out yesterday from the Entertainment Software Association, the big kahuna of gaming industry lobbying shops. The ESA study, based on surveys of 150 large entities in March, also revealed that three-quarters of the companies not yet using games and immersive environments to train will do so in the next few years.

Strong evidence that games are getting serious. So too the growing presence of business in synthetic worlds like Second Life. For example, see the Xerox video above, and the one here:




A new report out a few days ago from Forrester Research Inc. underscores the point with an in-depth look at IBM's big roll of the dice on Web3D.



And gaming's getting big in other forms of education and training as well. The Washington Post had a Sunday story featuring former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's foray into gaming the judicial system, er, I mean using a game to explain it, of course!

There's lots more here, in a piece I did today for Nextgov.com.

And come this Thursday, I will be talking with Army simulation and training guru Roger Smith about gaming as a disruptive technology in the military simulation market. You can register for free here.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Fox in the MMORPG Revisited


"Bill Moyers Journal" aired a nice piece about government surveillance on June 9 by reporter Rick Karr. In it, he neatly and quickly explains how virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online role-playing games work. Then, he recaps the Director of National Intelligence report revealing Reynard, the plan to surveil such worlds and games for "suspicious behavior and action." What's particularly interesting is the way Karr ties this in with the still controversial, still live program to intercept phone calls in the service of the war on terrorism, or whatever we're supposed to be calling it now.

Those of you who read this blog regularly and/or followed the Reynard link above should pay special attention to the way the Karr story ends. Seems like "The Agile Mind" ought to have at least gotten a hat tip, no?

Tip 'o the brim for the clip to: WNET New York

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Pity the Coyote


That poor coyote had better head for the hills. The Roadrunner is now the fastest supercomputer ever.

This new bird owes its speed to a gaming console. Inside Sony's PlayStation 3 is a processor that works hard to make the virtual worlds of games more realistic. It's called the Cell. Programmers and researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and IBM teamed up to tinker with the Cell so it could power Roadrunner, which, the lab announced June 9, doubled the speed record previously held by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's supercomputer Blue Gene by performing 1.026 quadrillion calculations per second, something knows as a petaflop amongst the cognoscenti.

The Energy Department intends to use Roadrunner to perform calculations needed to ensure that nuclear weapons still are working without testing them underground.

I've written elsewhere about the symbiotic relationship between games and military training and especially the growing use of game controllers to operate weapons and unmanned equipment. So it's no great surprise to see a controller at the core of the fastest computer anywhere. It's just interesting commentary on where America's R&D power is located and where it's focused. More and more, the government is content to let game companies make the tactile and training breakthroughs and then simply to convert them.

Hat tip to Popular Mechanics

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Government 2.0


With Barack Obama clinching the Democratic nomination today, comes a rare return to the feeling that anything is possible here in Washington. It likely won't last long, but it's stirring and wonderful, like the fresh breeze after one of our sudden, thunderous storms washes the stale, humid air of summer.

Yesterday, I had another taste of fresh air at a conference of all places. And it, too, was redolent with memory, hearkening back to the early days of the National Performance Review under President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. (Remember when they tossed the football while wearing plaid short-sleeved shirts and khakis to conjure those iconic images of Camelot in the Kennedy compound?)

The Deloitte-National Academy of Public Administration conference, "Web 2.0: The Future of Government," June 3 was awash with the inevitability of transformation, the cracking through of silos and the reconnection with customer-citizens long ago pushed out of problem-solving. It sounds familiar and even quaint to those of us who've grown jaded chasing NPR and GPRA and PART. But the hardy band of reformers who still believe government is a vital vehicle for little "d" democracy, can't help but be energized by each new effort to turn the battleship.

This time, it's collaboration that's certain to fix federal failures. A breadth and depth of collaboration within government, with it and other entities and with Americans heretofore unimaginable enabled by the tools of Web 2.0: wikis, blogs, social networking and even virtual worlds. And it's hard not to be swept away in the vision of agencies harvesting the ideas and plaints of employees and citizens online and addressing them in Internet time. Hard not to be enchanted by the notion of using Google maps and real-time information feeds to really get a handle on infrastructure, or disaster planning or improved grant making. Hard not to like the idea of smart people inside and outside the halls of power sharing what they know and what they don't without the endless, enervating vetting and cleaning process that slows most real interchange to a halt still today.

It was refreshing to learn, for example, that it's no longer true that when an FBI agent calls an NSA analyst, he or she must hand the phone to a supervisor to get permission to speak outside the silo. The success of experiments like Intellipedia, where intel analysts can post what they know and watch it grow as others in the community add to and edit it, is exciting. Improvements wrought by TSA's internal Idea Factory blog will improve all our travels. Checkpoint Evolution, for example, is a pilot project built in the factory that will bring mood lighting, ambient music and wireless headsets instead of cacophony and shouted commands to the baggage checkpoints of a few lucky airports.

And the Transportation Security Officers who screen your luggage are likely to be a bit happier now that another suggestion harvested online allows them to swap jobs with officers at other airports if they can entice their colleagues to move.

Conjuring an image of government as facilitator or as partner with nonprofits, companies, interest groups and anyone else who can help address intractable problems is fun. Imagining every manager, and even better, every policy-maker and elected official, asking "what is the public value we are trying to add? before creating or implementing a program is thrilling.

But the splash of cold water comes quickly: The not inconsequential number of federal employees using computers running Windows 98 won't have access to Web 2.0 tools. The lawyers and IT security guardians already are pouncing, finding YouTube indemnity agreements verboten and virtual world software downloads a threat. As with every cultural change, fear is the greatest enemy and incrementalism the most debilitating wound.

All this opening up and "transparency" threatens big cracks in many rice bowls. The notion that no one of us is as smart as all of us implies a sharing of information antithetical to the cherished belief that information is more valuable when it is not shared than shared. And after all, when we all have collaborated on a project, how do I claim credit to enhance my performance appraisal? How does a manager award evaluation points for collaborating?

"How can we make government a place where everything becomes possible," one speaker asked. Such a lovely aspiration but quixotic, no? Sort of like a black man as a serious contender for the presidency.

Hey, wait a minute.

Photo credit: Obama campaign

Friday, May 30, 2008

Evading the .mil Ban on Web 2.0


The Army has quietly figured out a work-around to the Defense Department ban on visiting social media sites--blogs, YouTube, MySpace and Facebook and the like--from official computer networks. Unlike the Air Force and Navy, which remain blocked off from the most popular and arguably useful parts of the Internet, the Army simply has built replicas behind its own firewalls.

The ever-amazing David Axe, military reporter extraordinaire, reveals the Army's inventiveness in evading what he terms the military's "civil war" over Internet use in the first of a three-part series at the new Washington Independent online news site.

In January, the Army's Myspace/Facebook clone went live, mimicking the civilian sites' status updates, messaging and ability to add friends, in the Army's case "members I value," according to Axe. It's apparently a boon to the frequently deployed as they try to keep up with colleagues. Blogging capability came online in April.

The .mil Internet ban hasn't only affected uniformed service members. It also has hobbled researchers and civilian managers and employees attempting to take advantage of Web collaboration tools. At the recent Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds conference in Washington, Defense employees explained that to experiment with synthetic online worlds, they had to set up off-network computer farms to connect to Second Life and the like. The Air Force training command had to create a .edu domain to get around the proscription in order to prepare to create its virtual airbase.

As Axe reports, the Army's social networking efforts began with a small group of young officers who created online forums to instantly and directly share tips and lessons in the 1990s. The Army officially OK'd the forums in 2002 and the MySpace clone, in turn, grew out of them. The overall effort is housed at the Center for Company-Level Leaders at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

Photo credit: Tetra Rugged Computers

Virtual Training Exposed--An Hour With a Guru


What's a blog for if not to toot your own horn now and again? So I'll take that opportunity now and invite you to join me for a Webinar I am moderating on June 26 at 2 p.m. EDT. Roger Smith, one of the best-known analysts of virtual training, will be talking with me about how computer games, supercomputers and Web 2.0 are revolutionizing the way the U.S. military prepares to fight and to win hearts and minds.

Smith is chief technology officer for the Army's simulation-buying organization and has had a close-up view of the revolution in training wrought by technology, war, and politics in recent years. He is a fascinating thinker who has developed a terrifically enlightening theory about how gaming platforms are a disruptive technology in the simulation market.

Here's the teaser for the Webinar:

Simulation 2.0: Revolutionary Changes in Military Training and Beyond

Thursday, June 26, 2008
2:00 PM Eastern Daylight Time

The military simulation market is in the midst of radical changes perhaps felt most deeply by the Army. Deployed extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it is fighting unconventional battles, the Army is in need of new equipment, and rapid training and mission rehearsal for untraditional warfare against an ever-evolving enemy. Its training must keep up. At the same time, the service is moving to a new model of buying simulation as a service and is taking advantage of huge increases in computing power and an explosion in immersive gaming to create new learning opportunities for troops in the field.


Roger Smith, Chief Technology Officer for the Army's Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation, will discuss how the Army is taking advantage of the revolution in simulation and training with Anne Laurent, former Executive Editor of Government Executive and founder of The Agile Mind, a new blog about virtual government.

To listen in, you'll need to register here.

While he's a rock star in the simulation world, Smith isn't as well known beyond it. He should be, though, for he is a gatekeeper at a crossroads of increasing interest and importance to everyone running programs in government and to those selling them services. Smith stands astride the place where real-world training and mission rehearsal meet, where soldiers first encounter the new weapons systems and equipment they must use, and where warfighters and their support teams run into samples of the crises they must learn to quell. His vantage point makes Smith's insights invaluable for all of us straining to understand and employ the tools of Web 2.0 and beyond.

Here's a bit I wrote about Smith in the Dec. 1, 2006 issue of Government Executive magazine under the headline "Grow Up Gamers" :

America's Army, the overwhelmingly successful video game recruiting tool, and Full Spectrum Warrior, the combat game built to military specs, spawned increased interest in the use of games for training across the military services and other agencies. But game-makers who view the government as just one big open wallet will be disappointed.

"The government is not going to adapt to work with gamers," says Roger Smith, chief scientist and chief technical officer for the Army Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation in Orlando, Fla. "We have an entire [simulation] industry base for the military - billions of dollars . . . just directed at us because the military has unique demands," Smith told an audience of game designers and potential buyers at the Serious Games Conference in Washington on Oct. 31.

It's not that the Pentagon and other agencies aren't interested in gamers' wares. It's that military buyers need "many military-unique pieces [that] are not in a closed-box game," Smith said. Having invested hundreds of millions of dollars in simulators in the mid- to late-1990s, the services aren't about to throw them away to adopt games, he added. Instead, they will continually modify simulators through the end of their useful lives, sometime around 2015.

Nevertheless, Defense recognizes that games are cheaper and provide more adaptable, richer and more realistic environments than traditional simulations. But the Pentagon doesn't want to buy finished games; it wants to buy pieces of games to build what it wants. "We need the pieces to be separable. . . . we need each piece to have an interface that is publicly exposed so you can glue them together yourself," Smith said. Military users also want game pieces to be mixable with the simulations made by traditional defense contractors. Deconstructing games also will enable competitive bidding on the parts.

Game-makers should expect to morph if they want military sales, Smith said: "Serious games are a temporary phenomenon for the military. Military users will create their own industry. Game companies will become traditional defense contractors . . . . a lot of companies will be acquired by big [defense contractors]." The big Defense firms aren't in the games market yet, he said, because they're not clear where simulations begin and games leave off, and they aren't sure how big the market will be. Smith can help them see the opportunity: "If game technology remains cheap, we can build devices [to train] medical people, logisticians, military police, linguists, maintenance people. Moving beyond the traditional simulation audience is where the real benefit lies."

Please join us on June 26.

Photo credit: BBN Technologies

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Purely for Fun



If you like a mix of the weird, the informative and the just plain fascinating early in the day, sign up for Boing Boing, which calls itself "The Directory of Wonderful Things." Today's first offering is just a quick clip by Peter Shankman (founder and CEO of The Geek Factory, Inc., a boutique marketing a PR strategy firm in New York) of the inside of a baggage screening machine through the eye of the new Flip camera.




My hunch is that these incredibly cheap, but really pretty darn high quality, video cameras will give a bigger boost to "citizen journalism" than even cell phones. Not only do they make shooting for YouTube a cinch, but they make video podcasting and blogging (vlogging) truly simply, too.

For example, here's how Al Tompkins of Poynteronline's "Al's Morning Meeting" column produces his video blog using a Flip.