Tech Tools for Tough Times

By Dennis McCafferty  |  Posted 2010-02-04

IT managers at government agencies have seldom opted for expensive tech tools simply for bragging rights, and, in the current economic climate, that’s not likely to change: The spending forecast for 2010 remains cautiously optimistic, focused on practical values, such as cost savings, increased efficiencies and better service to citizens.

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Federal government agencies currently spend $76 billion annually on IT—a figure expected to increase to $90 billion by 2014, according to INPUT, a market research firm that specializes in government IT spending. President Obama’s fiscal 2010 budget planning indicates that the top IT priorities and demands include cloud computing, “green” IT, health care solutions and cyber-security. (See “No Vacation for Cyber-Security Solutions” on page 32.)

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State and local government IT spending will increase from $49.6 billion in 2009 to $60.1 billion in 2014, INPUT reports. In a recent survey, cyber-security, consolidation, shared services, data management, performance measures and health information exchange were among the top priorities for state governments’ IT investment, according to the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), a Lexington, Ky.-based organization.

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One common theme among government agencies is the need to make better use of the information and resources that already exist—whether this involves technology that better analyzes databases, that helps far-flung agencies collaborate and communicate more effectively, or that launches Web 2.0-styled solutions that inspire innovation.

With this in mind, Baseline examined IT projects at the three levels of government—local, state and federal—to get a clearer sense of how investment in technologies that make better use of existing data and resources can provide positive, tangible results. The following success stories serve as examples of what government agencies—and their counterparts in the private sector—can do.

Business Analytics Makes a Difference

With 2,200 social services employees overseeing a mega-load of needy clients (including 19,000 welfare recipients, 61,000 receiving Medicaid and 28,000 citizens depending on food stamps), Northern California’s Alameda County could easily become overwhelmed by such demand. Under the gun to meet a federal mandate to place 50 percent of individuals who are in the welfare program into jobs, the county’s social services department has struggled to track which recipients were working and which were collecting benefits while staying at home. Tracking teens who would go from foster care to juvenile detention to probation also proved problematic.

”We were data-rich and information-poor,” admits Don Edwards, the assistant social services director overseeing information systems.

To make better use of all the accumulated data, in July, the department officially launched an analytics system solution from IBM. The system, a Web-enabled dashboard running on Linux, allows employees to access relevant records and data related to their clients at one time, rather than sorting through individual documents manually.

The system will red-flag a welfare-to-work offender and will make a phone call to notify the recipient that he or she must start working or lose benefits. In the past, this kind of monitoring was handled manually by the caseworkers. While the system is still relatively new, the county expects to save

$11 million annually, in part by eliminating fraud cases and saving personnel hours.

There’s a human benefit here too—providing better care for those in need.

“Take a child who’s been in foster care for most of his life,” Edwards says. “He turns 18 with a host of emotional and mental problems, gets in trouble and ends up in the probation system. We can now track his entire history of counseling, education and care, and compare it with another young man who’s gone through similar circumstances but is doing better. We can then determine if we need to apply that same treatment for the one who’s struggling.”

Web 2.0 and Collaboration Inspire Innovation

For decades, the U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) has served as the IT brainchild of the Department of Defense (DOD), consistently coming up with breakthroughs in the development of voice/video/data systems, command intelligence, satellite communications and other IT tools.

DISA understood that finding better ways to share ideas often produces better results, which led to its launch of, a Web-enabled collaborative platform that allows more than 3,000 registered software developers, testers, certifiers, operators and users to exchange thoughts and resources. Based on CollabNet’s TeamForge software, incorporates Web 2.0 tools, such as Wikis, and is in the process of adding blogs, social networking and social tagging. It uses tools such as JackBe, a mashup platform for enterprises to combine previously disconnected information resources for more informed decision making.

Given how large and global DOD operations are, the open-source nature of can help agencies better pursue even relatively routine tasks, such as the launch of a Linux operating system. “If one DOD agency has already done this and another is interested in doing the same thing, the two of them can share information on,” explains Rob Vietmeyer, the DISA project leader overseeing the effort.

It also can assist soldiers in the battlefield. If an enemy target is pinpointed in Afghanistan, for example, intelligence officers can share geographic and other needed data swiftly via a classified version of Commanders can use these tools to quickly collaborate on an execution plan, which can then be accessed by military forces in the field.

“This allows us to take all kinds of resources and tools—such as geospatial programs, Army intelligence and even resources available to the public on sites like Google—and mash them all together so we can make good decisions and come up with even better tools,” Vietmeyer says.

Boosting Health Care Reporting

In the past, Illinois would have handled a typical infectious disease case this way: A patient would walk into a doctor’s office and complain of symptoms. He’d get checked out, and if there was reasonable concern, be sent to a laboratory for a blood test. The blood would be evaluated and—anytime from a few days to 10 days later—health-care providers would know what they were dealing with.

Today, thanks to an information-sharing/collaboration system called the Illinois National Electronic Disease Surveillance System (I-NEDSS), that timeline is significantly fast-tracked. Once a patient’s blood work is completed, the lab immediately inputs the results electronically into a network that connects state, local and federal health-focused agencies. The local doctor and patient are given the information needed for treatment within 24 hours of the lab sample submission.

The results are also immediately reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so federal officials can collect the data to assemble a national database of cases. “This gives us a robust, Web-based capability for reporting these cases,” says James Driscoll, CIO of the Illinois Department of Public Health. “We have important data on an estimated 140 diseases in this system.”

Developed in-house with support from Rose International, a technology services firm, I-NEDSS was launched in the wake of post-9/11 concerns about the reporting capabilities of public health systems in the event of a bioterrorism attack. The Illinois system was first tested in 2004, when it reported 10 food-borne diseases in a database shared by state and local health departments. In spring 2009, H1N1 was added.

Today, Illinois is planning to expand the system’s capability to include Sexually Transmitted Diseases and death records. Ultimately, state officials seek a tool that will determine where outbreaks are occurring to allow for swifter intervention to minimize the impact on the public.

“We’re constantly asking what more this system can do to help local health departments,” says Suresh Kathiresan, project manager. “We want them to have a clearer understanding of what they’re dealing with.”