In the coming year, agencies should expect to see an explosion in mobile computing devices, and software applications, or apps that run on them. That’s just as true in the government as it is in industry.
Right now Apple’s iPad is the mobile device of choice for the cutting-edge fed. But other companies are getting on the bandwagon. Sometime early next year, Research in Motion, the Canadian company that made the BlackBerry, will be rolling out the BlackBerry Playbook, a tablet that will work in conjunction with the BlackBerry PDA. Just last month, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy, a tablet sized device running the Android operating system from Google.
Jerry Rhoads, with the Department of Homeland Security’s CIO office, Technology and Insertion Planning Branch, has what some might consider a “fun” job: taking the latest “must have” mobile devices, and anticipating, and planning for, demand for them among feds at his agency.
“We get the toys, the iPhones, the BlackBerrys, the Android Xs, the Galaxy tablet, anything that’s coming down the pike. We bring it in, because inevitably, someone’s going to see it, and say, ‘Hey, I want one of these!’,” he said during a panel discussion on mobile apps in Washington Wednesday sponsored by IAC/ACT.
Clutching his very own federally-issue iPad, Rhoads said he wants to be an enabler of mobile technology especially if it can help someone do their job.
Rhoads said he doesn’t want employees to buy one of the new devices and put it on the network without his office evaluating it first.
“What we want to do is be proactive and actually look at the technology, so that when someone sees it on the plane…we’ve already got the technology insertion paperwork in the pipe, and we’re ready to service,” he said.
Another fed who has mobile on his mind is Rick Holgate, chief information officer with the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“Most of what they do is outside the office,” he said. “What we’re looking to do is make that time outside the office as productive as possible.”
Mobile becomes especially important for an agency like his where telework is the norm rather than the exception, Holgate said.
“Particularly for our industry operations investigators who regulate the firearms and explosives industry,” he said. “They spend virtually all of their time outside the office working with their industry partners. So they are essentially on one hundred percent telework, so right there, that’s about 40 percent of our workforce. Combine that with our special agents, who spend a lot of time outside of the office, we have as much as 80 percent of our workforce that are either telework eligible or who actively telework on a regular basis.”
Aside from the “coolness” factor, mobile devices such as the iPad provide endless opportunities to enhance productivity, whether it’s allowing the user to catch-up on the secretary’s latest speech by video, or taking in a feature-rich presentation deck.
Sonny Bhagowalia, the deputy associate administrator in the General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, said the bottom line when it comes to mobile devices and apps is that “convenience will outweigh the risk.”
ICE’s Rhoads said safeguarding against that risk includes traveling down the road of federal certification of what is currently the most popular mobile operating system.
“Right now, the iPad is going through the National Institute of Standards and Technology certification for FIPS 140-2 compliance,” he said. “That will make the actual (Apple) iOS4 (operating system), and hardware secure. The applications themselves will [go through] another accreditation process. We’re in the process of trying to figure out, ‘will the current process work, or will we have to modify it?’ This stuff is so cutting edge, we’re really learning as we go.”
In a similar vein, ATF’s Holgate said their development work with the iPad required clearance from his IT bosses at the Justice.
“What we worked with DoJ on was to get their acknowledgement and approval of the fact that we’re going to use some tools that don’t meet the normal security requirements for mobile platforms, but knowing that we’re doing this in a limited capacity and using some third party capabilities to give us some compensating controls on the devices,” Holgate said.
Holgate added that Justice has given ATF permission to experiment with the iPad for the next 14 months.
GSA’s Bhagowalia hinted that in the next few months, his agency is considering a contest or two on Challenge.gov to encourage development of the next mobile federal app, similar to the Agriculture Department’s successful Apps for Healthy Kids competition which concluded recently.
Asked to spec out his ideal mobile platform, Holgate said he might recommend for his industry investigators, who do a lot of report writing, “a much richer platform, like a tablet or a pad of some sort,” whereas one of their special agents might be given something more akin to a smartphone, like a BlackBerry or iPhone, because they are “much more mobile, and less likely to do an intensive transaction on the platform.”
Rhoads said that for his part, he wants a flexible mobile platform, something that would support applications written in an open standard, platforms that provide value to the government, and meet federal performance standards for security and productivity.
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