Web 2.0 in the Federal Government: The Age of Collaboration

By Brian Burns - Published, April 22, 2009

There are a few frontiers left to explore: space; the world's oceans; Earth's inner space; microscopic and nano inner spaces; and cyberspace. Exploration in these areas is led by many Federal agencies such as NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation and the departments of Commerce, Defense and Homeland Security. Each of these frontiers relies on the advanced tools of cyber technology to facilitate exploration. In this article, we will explore cyberspace and discuss the changes that brought us to the use of Web 2.0 in the Federal government.


Cyber technology cannot be considered in isolation of business needs and missions. It has evolved as a strategic investment to support business needs and missions and has been consistently constrained by computing power; bandwidth; storage; geography and geospace; and security and privacy concerns.

Advances in technology have had a dramatic effect on society causing shifts in cultural models, social structures, economics and living conditions. Humankind has evolved from feudalism to the agrarian age, to the industrial age, to the information age — and now — to the present age of collaboration.

Up until the industrial age, we relied on animals and our brains and brawn to accomplish tasks and make decisions. Through the industrial age we relied on electro-mechanical devices, human analysis and human cognition to make decisions and execute tasks.

During the information age, we relied on computer computation and analysis to execute tasks, and still relied on human cognition to make decisions. During this time, we moved from punch cards and "dumb" terminals, to user interfaces, to ubiquitous interfaces.

We are now poised for ubiquitous computing. Why? Because the cost of memory, bandwidth and storage has rapidly decreased as the capacity of computing power, bandwidth and storage has exponentially increased. Hence, we are now at a point when access to cyber resources is readily available to most of the population.

Grid computing and artificial intelligence (AI) can provide collaborative computing, machine-based analysis, rule-based decisions and execute tasks. Humans are able to tap into both cyber resources and remotely located individuals to accomplish business functions and social activities.

Many baby boomers pioneered cultural change during the information age when they convinced their traditionalist managers to embrace desktop computing over paper processes to improve business processes and productivity.

Today, Millennials are pioneering cultural change to convince their baby boomer managers to use collaborative Web 2.0 tools, instead of e-mail, time-dependent media broadcasts and structured work hours, to gain process and quality-of-life improvements.

The progression is familiar to many of you. We moved from:

  • VM (virtual machines) on mainframes to VMware (virtual software) on servers;
  • Systems Network Architecture (SNA) proprietary priority services to Internet Protocol (IP) standards-based priority services;
  • 3270 terminals (display devices used to communicate with mainframes) to diskless workstations with terminal services — a thin client display window used to view data stored on servers. Advantages of thin client diskless workstations over fat client local disk workstations can include lower production and operational costs, lower power consumption, quieter operation and lowered security risks;
  • Generalized Markup Language (GML) script to Extensible Markup Language (XML);
  • Bulletin boards and listservs to wikis;
  • Automated data processing (ADP), to information systems (IS), to information resources management (IRM), to information technology (IT), to information management (IM), to cloud computing — a style of computing in which real-time scalable resources are provided "as a service" over the Internet to users who need not have knowledge of, expertise in, or control over the technology infrastructure ("in the cloud") that supports them;
  • Standalone mainframes, to centralized "glass house" or data centers, to networked data centers, to distributed computing, to grid computing, meshed networks and cloud computing.
  • Mainframe time-shared services to the computing cloud of shared hosts and services.
We used to write letters. Then we talked on phones. Then we wrote e-mails and sent faxes. Next we used cell phones, video conferencing, instant messaging and simple messaging.

Now we use social networking utilities and telepresence, which is a collection of interactive technologies that allow users to interact in real-time with one another from a distance.

We are exploring virtual reality and, in the future, we will use 3-D tele-immersion and other cyber sense technology which will allow users to immerse themselves in another real-time virtual place.

At the end of the day, these media tools fulfill the basic requirement to communicate effectively in what is perceived to be an efficient and cost-effective manner.

Changes in the Federal Government

With these technological advances, the Federal Government's use of technology to deliver services to citizens and the warfighter is evolving as new technology tools are invented.

At the same time, there needs to be a balance between security and privacy controls and transparent access of government information and services to citizens.

New Web 2.0 tools present a great opportunity to collaborate freely and openly outside the confines of office walls. As artificial intelligence, cloud computing and 3-D imaging evolve, we will immerse ourselves into using our five senses to communicate virtually.

As AI grows evermore intelligent — will it become our sixth sense? As the new cyber frontier opens, we will need to explore it with our eyes wide open; our ears tuned; and our fingers, voice and retinas ready to respond, while abiding by applicable laws and policies.

In government acquisition, Web 2.0 opens the door for more rapid and collaborative responses to requests for information (RFIs), requests for quotes (RFQs), and requests for proposals (RFPs).

Federal procurement specifications will change from the government specifying how contractors are to design and provide systems, to specifying capability and service requirements.

This means that as solutions become global and part of the cloud, industry will need to provide open source and nongovernment-owned, cost-effective solutions that separate the "want to have" requirements from the "need to have" requirements.

The government needs to encourage industry to take a proactive business intelligence and process improvement role and propose alternative ways to approach RFP requirements, if the government does not specify requirements in terms of service.

In the Department of the Navy, the DON Chief Information Officer has encouraged the use of Web 2.0 tools consistent with applicable laws, regulations and policies.

Real-time, secure information access by the Navy and Marine Corps is of high interest. Some expectations are that Web 2.0 tools will expand the dimensions of data to allow tagging of the data, not only for content, but for the security level, privacy level, authoritative duration, and authoritative source/location.

As we evolve from the information age to the collaboration age, Web 2.0 tools will emerge as mainstream ways to conduct ongoing business and warfighting.

Change is upon us, and the future is now.

Brian Burns is a member of the Senior Executive Service. Burns is on detail to the DON CIO as deputy CIO for emerging technology from the Department of Education.

TAGS: InfoSharing, Social Media

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