Army sees bright future in new acquisition approach

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The Army didn’t just receive 25 new software tools for improving how the service works through its Apps for the Army contest. Maybe more importantly, it received solid proof that agile software development can work in the government.

Lt. Gen. Jeff Sorenson, the Army’s chief information officer, says the success of the competition will lead to a major change in how the service approaches certain kinds of technology creation in the future.

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“This contest methodology portends a way for the future on how we might do these even more complicated applications in a much more quicker fashion,” says Sorenson Wednesday during a press briefing discussing the contest winners at the LandWarNet conference in Tampa, Fla. “This is exciting. This is looking to different way to do things in the future, and I think all of us…will continue to do this going into the future.”

In fact, Sorenson and Army Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology Malcolm O’Neill will issue an Acquisition Decision Memorandum in the coming weeks detailing major changes to the application development process.

Sorenson says the memo will define a common operating environment for future development similar to the way Apple and Google do for apps to run on their smartphones.

“You begin to stipulate exactly how you want systems integrated, how you want third party vendors going off and developing apps to integrate their capabilities and begins to simplify the fielding of systems just from the stand point of every knows what you are suppose to deliver and can certify and accredit them in rapid fashion,” Sorenson says.

He adds his office reviewed the memo last week and expects to send it to O’Neill in the next few weeks for final approval.

The Army launched the Apps for the Army contest in March after Sorenson saw the success of similar contests such as Apps for Democracy in Washington as well as soldiers developing local applications in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Army worked with the Defense Information Systems Agency to set up a development and testing platform on forge.mil and using the Rapid Access Computing Environment (RACE) platform to let soldiers and civilians from the Army develop apps on several platforms–the Apple iPhone, the Google Droid, RIM Blackberry and Microsoft Windows mobile.

The contest lasted for75 days and 141 soldiers and civilians developed 53 Web and mobile applications. A panel of Army experts chose 15 winners and 10 honorable mentions across five categories. The Army announced the winners, which all received from $500 to $3,000 in prize money, Monday at the LandWarNet conference.

Many of the apps are available for download at on the Army storefront.

“We just gave folks an opportunity to create something that they felt from their own perspective would be useful for the Army,” Sorenson says. “This is one of those things like I think they did with Apps for Democracy…no one defined a requirement, but if you saw something that needed to be improved in the Army, [you had] the ability to go off and do that. The process was nothing more than opening it up.”

One of the winners, Maj. Greg Motes, who helped developed a physical training program app for the iPhone, says his team actually developed four software programs.

Motes says his team ended developing this specific app that lets soldiers better understand the Army’s new Physical Readiness Training Guide through a searchable format that includes video demonstrations because of a suggestion by Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, the deputy commanding general of TRADOC, Initial Military Training.

“We saw this as a new way that maybe training manuals in the future could be shown-something that is searchable and is fairly easy to navigate and also adds a media component,” Motes says.

When asked what Motes and his team will do with the $3,000 first place prize, he joked about buying everyone iPhone 4s. On a more serious note, Motes says they may hold a small celebration and donate the rest of the money to a DoD charity – the Fisher House or Wounded Warriors.

Sorenson says usability was the biggest factor in awarding first, second, third and honorable mention prizes. And for those 28 apps that didn’t receive recognition, Sorenson says the Army will continue to work with the developers to improve them and get them listed on the storefront.

“Another thing about Apps for Army is when we put up code and an application, it can be further improved or developed by others,” he says. “The point is to continue to evolve capabilities so users can make improvements and repost it, similar to what happens with Firefox and Linux. We encourage others to improve on what is out there. We want this to be a collaborative and communal activity.”

Sorenson says over the next year the Army will expand the use of this agile development approach. He says an industry contest likely is in the offing.

“We have all of these collaboration sites ongoing right now where soldiers are talking to each other about how things are going, what they need and so forth and I believe something in the future in terms of how we can more rapidly develop apps is to take these particular forums and synthesize what is the content within these forums where they are beginning to identify a series of needs,” he says. “We take those and put out simple contest for industry. We are looking for an app to XYZ and we will give you 30 days, and come back and show us what you have.”

Sorenson adds after 30 days the command or base who had this need would vote on what the vendors developed and the best one would receive funding and 60 days to complete it.

“We don’t go through the process of writing a requirement document, doing a RFP and doing all the…bureaucratic acquisition process that sort of slows us down in trying to deliver a capability,” he says. “We haven’t walked through all the particulars of this, but I think this concept and how we did this contest portends the way of how we can more rapidly develop applications in the future, using the collaborative forums to help define the requirements, using this contest methodology to go out and actually have companies begin participate and build it in a manner we can more rapidly bring it in.”

Sorenson says other DoD services and agencies are closely watching the Army’s success. He says he will meet with Maj. Gen. George Allen, the Marines CIO, to discuss how the contest works, and others, including Lt. Gen. William Lord, the Air Force’s CIO, are interested in possibly following suit.

Sorenson says as of now, soldiers and civilians will have to use these applications on their own personal devices as iPhone and Droids are not approved for use on military networks. Sorenson, however, says there are a few instances in theater where units are testing out these and other similar devices.

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