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Everybody knows that big data has been key to the growing success of digital government services. But it’s no longer enough for data to simply be available. Rather, the data driving the digital transformation in government has to enable engagement.

That was the central theme kicking off Tuesday’s Adobe Digital Government Assembly in Washington, D.C. Produced by FedScoop, the event attracted nearly 1,000 federal and industry IT professionals to exchange ideas on the latest lessons leaned in a variety of areas, from digital content engagement to big data and cloud computing to security and e-learning.

Adobe Systems Inc. used the event to announce the launch of its Adobe Cloud for Government. The company is currently undergoing the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) certification process.

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Erie Meyer, founding member of the U.S. Digital Service. (FedScoop)

Call to action

Erie Meyer, one of the founding members of the U.S. Digital Services Team, kicked-off the event with an impassioned and energetic call for more IT professionals to get involved in helping to transform and improve government services through technology.

“I’m here because I need you to all agree to join me on several things and the first is on the playbook,” Meyer said. “We have a playbook, we have a problem, now we need the people.”

Meyer heralded the progress of government digital services after her keynote talk. Despite the initial bugs of the Healthcare.gov rollout, Myer said the crisis was crucial in the development of the small digital services groups popping up in government.

“A small group came together to work with the feds and other people who were already on the ground in order to turn around a site that was struggling,” she told FedScoop. “The government sort of saw that as proof of concept of something that could be scaled, and we’re now seeing teams being built to do exactly that at different agencies.”

While some industry groups might feel threatened by new digital services groups, which in some cases are building products internally rather that outsourcing the need to private companies, Meyer said the commercial sector can play a big role in this revolution.

“The IT industry has a huge opportunity to make sure we get $50 billion worth of IT every year,” she said of the chunk of the IT budget dedicated to contracting each year. She pointed to the TechFAR as a major resource for industry in helping government agencies with their digital needs.

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Dan Verton, FedScoop editorial director, interviews Lynn Overmann, deputy chief data officer, Department of Commerce. (FedScoop)

Data and more data

Lynn Overmann, the deputy chief data officer at the Commerce Department, provided critical insights into one of the federal government’s biggest data collectors. It’s virtually impossible for Commerce to know with any accuracy exactly how much data it collects and stores for use by other agencies and businesses, but it spans everything from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the Economics and Statistics Administration to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the U.S. Census Bureau.

It’s a lot of data. NOAA, for example collects 20 terabytes of data every day but can only release 2 terabytes due to capacity limitations, according to Overmann.

For Overmann, the government’s push to the cloud has taken on a unique mission at Commerce. “For us, the cloud is really about building capacity and a way to get the data out of the agency,” she said.

So the common challenge at the bureau level in the Commerce Department is that officials understand power data users, but they are struggling to figure out a way to optimize wholesale data use, she said. “It’s hard to see how and where our data lands after we push it out.”

Cloud migration

Agency IT leaders, including those at the Air Force, the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Agriculture, expressed renewed concern bracing for the inevitable data management demands as agencies continue migrating to the cloud.

Moving to the cloud offers improved agility, but it doesn’t fully address the flood of data and a host of related issues headed government’s way, said Michael Valivullah, chief technology officer for the National Agricultural Statistics Service at the USDA.

The emerging use of unmanned aerial vehicles and remote sensors by farmers and third-party agricultural monitoring services, for instance, promises to unleash torrents of new data — from higher-resolution images to new data on ground temperatures, humidity and crop vitality, he said. Agencies like the USDA will need to develop strategies “to filter the data it actually needs,” from those sources, he said.

That will likely mean greater reliance on edge computing — processing more of the data at the source before it hits an agency’s cloud — and developing a cadre of data scientists and new funding streams to properly analyze that data, he said.

Frank Konieczny, chief technology officer for the Air Force’s Office of Information Dominance, also pointed to the challenge and complexity of rationalizing hundreds of applications on Air Force servers that are creating an aerodynamic drag on the Air Force’s IT initiatives.

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“You can’t say today I’m going to be engaged and expect a lot of people to show up,” Gwynne Kostin, director of digital government at GSA, said while announcing the debut of the Public Participation Playbook. It’s about building relationships ahead of time and over time, she said. Pictured from Left: Loni Stark, director of Web experience management at Adobe; Jackie Haven, deputy director, CNPP/USDA; Brad Radichel, associate director, business programs, Department of Veterans Affairs; Al Weisner, senior vice president Information Analysis Inc.; and Kostin. (FedScoop)

GSA’s Public Participation Playbook goes live

Gwynne Kostin, director of digital government at the General Services Administration, announced that the agency’s
Public Participation Playbook would go live Tuesday at participation.usa.gov. It’s an open source guide aimed at sharing how federal government agencies can bolster public participation.

“You can’t say, ‘today I’m going to be engaged’ and expect a lot of people to show up,” Kostin told attendees of the “Delivering Personalized Digital Citizen Experiences” presentation. It’s about building relationships ahead of time, she said.

Earlier in the panel, Brad Radichel, associate director business programs in the chief business office systems management at the Department of Veterans Affairs, talked about his agency’s efforts to help veterans apply for benefits, like the 10-10EZ.

Digital publishing

Other breakout sessions focused on a range of topics. At the “Creating and Managing Engaging Content” discussion, panelists talked about how graphic designers and multimedia professionals have gained prominence as leaders look to better engage the public.

“The new frontier for commercial and public sector agencies is learning how to craft and manage design-led customer experiences” — or, design with the customer in mind, said panel moderator Jerry Silverman, principal solutions consultant at Adobe.

Several government representatives discussed difficulties they face.

“One of the challenges we have at State is people don’t know what they want,” Eric Nelson, director of the Office of eDiplomacy at the State Department, said.

The State Department operates in 180 countries and different offices have different needs.

“It’s difficult for our teams to develop the skills and identify which skills to add to the tool kit.”

He said the department, which has 50 million followers around the world on its various social media platforms, offers a virtual internship program. The department encourages offices to create projects for students to complete.

Mark Hernandez, the CIA’s art director, said he is engaged in a massive effort to digitize what has historically been a paper-based process. “We’re trying to engage a publishing world that’s stuck back in paper,” he said. “We’ve turned reports, visuals into really low-budget interactives.”

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Rod Turk, associate CIO for cybersecurity and CISO at the Department of Energy. (FedScoop)

Cybersecurity

The publicity surrounding cyber attacks on companies like Sony, Target and Home Depot served as cautionary reminders as top agency officials spoke about protecting their confidential content. Rod Turk, associate CIO for cybersecurity at the Energy Department, said it’s difficult to know when the next hack could come.

“We don’t know the unknowns at this point, because these types of malware propagations are going to continue,” Turk said. “The bad guys have portfolios of the malware out there. They have identified the vulnerabilities, and we can assume, when it’s advantageous to them, they will employ them. We in the cyber world have to be aware … so we can maintain the confidentiality of our systems.”

Mark Schwartz, CIO at the Department of Homeland Security’s United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office, said agencies should tackle the problem by responding rapidly when attacks do happen.

“I agree you need early warning signs to figure out what’s wrong,” he said. “My thing is, how quickly can we respond? What I do is make a small change, wipe out old DMs that are compromised. The model is changing and focusing on the speed of response.”

e-Learning

Scott Biegel, a solutions consultant for Adobe, said the trick to make adults want to participate in e-learning is to make the Web interface more appealing and user friendly.

“E-learning is not making a PowerPoint and putting it on a website,” he said. He added that, to build a successful online course, developers need to think about content, repetition, alignment and positioning. “We are now more than ever in the industry of entertainment,” he said. “Keep me awake.”

Biegel said it’s important to create compelling e-learning platforms now, so the next generation of government workers — the millennials — can seamlessly transition after school.

“The next generation of folks who are going to be working for our agencies are used to digital media,” he said. “They are expecting it. It does not take them long to figure out how to absorb online data.”

Wyatt Kash, Corinne Lestch, Billy Mitchell and Whitney Blair Wyckoff contributed to this report.