Terrorism spurs Web collaboration effort
An obscure Web-based collaboration system under development by the State Department has caught the eye of Washington decision-makers as a possible solution to the information-sharing challenges that federal agencies face in the ongoing war against terrorism.
The Overseas Presence Interagency Collaboration System was designed in response to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Currently in a prototype phase, the system would provide leading-edge knowledge management and collaboration tools over an intranet to 40 federal agencies with overseas operations, including the Defense Department, U.S. Agency for International Development and the Peace Corps.
"Today, you've got 40 agencies with multiple ways of communicating. It looks like a spaghetti bowl," says Fernando Burbano, CIO of the State Department and the lead architect of the overseas Web collaboration system (See our interview with Burbano). "We want to go to a virtual knowledge management system that's secure. It's going to be available at the classified and unclassified levels."
The overseas Web collaboration system entered the limelight this fall after the worst terrorist attacks ever in the U.S. State Department officials say this system is the furthest along in terms of providing the level of interagency coordination needed to respond to new threats such as the recent outbreak of anthrax.
"The requirement for interagency collaboration and cooperation is paramount, not just overseas but domestically," says Anthony Muse, deputy CIO of the State Department. "Our project has been in the works for a year and half. We're not a Johnny-come-lately."
In recent weeks, Burbano has briefed two Senate committees, the White House Office of Homeland Security and the Office of Management and Budget on the design and status of the overseas Web collaboration system. While this system was designed for counterterrorism initiatives, it also supports crisis coordination, law enforcement, trade relations and human rights efforts.
"Even though [this system] is for foreign-affairs agencies, it's the same 40 agencies that need to communicate domestically," Burbano says. "The same software and hardware could be used."
The CIOs of the 10 primary foreign-affairs agencies drafted the architecture and requirements for the overseas Web collaboration system. The system was funded last April, when Secretary of State Colin Powell allocated $17 million for a prototype and pilot test of the system as part of his agenda to upgrade the State Department's network infrastructure.
In June, the State Department awarded three contracts to prototype the Web collaboration system. The winning contractors were Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), which teamed with PricewaterhouseCoopers; SRA International, which teamed with IBM; and Accenture, which teamed with General Dynamics and Booz-Allen & Hamilton.
The State Department plans to select a winning contractor in January and to conduct a five-month pilot test of the system at posts in Mexico and India starting in May. The pilot test will include 2,400 users from the State Department and other agencies.
The State Department will run the Web collaboration system on its OpenNet Plus architecture, which consists of 30,000 Pentium desktops and servers running Windows NT. The system will support document sharing, instant messaging, chat rooms, whiteboarding and advanced searching.
"The big thing here is knowledge management. This isn't just a network," Burbano says. "What is knowledge management? In my view, it's getting the right information to the right people at the right time regardless of their location to support decision-making in a distributive fashion."
The system will let users create communities of interest across agencies. Users from outside the State Department will access the system via a Web browser, and the system will be secured with public-key encryption, firewalls and intrusion-detection software.
"Why do we need knowledge management at overseas posts or domestic locations? It's important because people rotate, and we lose know-how. We've got to capture best practices. And we need to find who else is working on something and who has the expertise," Burbano says.
A classified version of the overseas Web collaboration system, also under development, will use the same hardware and software as the prototypes, Burbano says.
Industry bidders say the system is at the forefront of applying knowledge management and collaboration techniques.
"We do our own knowledge management here, but we're pushing the envelope with what we're doing in the State Department," says Meg McLaughlin, a partner at Accenture.
"They are focusing on the use of commercial, off-the-shelf software, and they are making the commitment to modify their business practices instead of modifying software," she adds.
Dean Thorsell, vice president of SAIC, says most federal agencies only have basic collaboration tools such as e-mail. "Just having access to shared documents over the Web is something that really takes [users] to the next step," he says.
Industry sources say the overseas Web collaboration system could cost from $30 million to more than $100 million, depending on the number of software tools selected and how they are deployed.
Deployment is not funded until the government's 2004 fiscal year, which begins in October 2003. But State Department officials say they could move up the schedule if money is allocated sooner.
"If [Congress] moved up some money to this year and to FY03, maybe we could speed up the worldwide deployment," Burbano says. "Those things are being looked at."
State Department CIO Burbano revamps network in time of war
Network World, 10/29/01.