Aug 03 2011

Lessons Learned from Far Afield

A few valuable IT lessons in supporting far-flung users.

Since the late 1990s, the State Department's mobile computing capabilities have expanded from a cumbersome dial-in process to a point today where diplomats can practice their skill craft from virtually anywhere in the world.

Whether following a disaster in Haiti or Japan, during fast-breaking and often dangerous events in the Middle East, or while stuck at home in a debilitating snow storm, State's staff members must have their fingers on the pulse of world events 24x7 and be able to engage directly with people in foreign lands.

Of course, there are less sexy uses for mobile computing. It can get literally thousands of Washington, D.C., commuters off the road or allow for the continuity of government operations in the event of an influenza outbreak. And in the Foreign Service, there's the transfer of officers from one post to another, which can result in their being without physical offices for months at a time.

This growing dependency on IT is both good and bad from the technologist's point of view. It's exciting to see the tools deployed being used to shape world events. But the downside is that mobile users by necessity depend on the public infrastructure, and it is not always apparent to users when service is impaired or disrupted.

The List

After a long tenure at State, here are what I consider the key factors in supporting far-flung users.

The first thing to grasp is that one solution does not serve all — in world diplomacy, or any federal mission really. The ubiquitous federal BlackBerrys don't work in all locations. Perhaps there's no carrier (although this is becoming less of a problem), or signal strength is insufficient to maintain connections. Applications are also cumbersome, if available, on some of these types of devices.

At State, we fielded an alternative solution that lets a user connect to e-mail and work files if there's a decent Internet connection. In other scenarios, where the department needs to stand up an evacuation point or meet with American citizens at a remote location, we created a solution called "Diplomat in a Backpack," which includes a small portable satellite and lets users establish a small LAN so that a team's members can work simultaneously.

Second, it's critical to listen to and dialogue constantly with users. What tools do they need to do their work effectively from anywhere? What is the work they need to accomplish? In the case of a State worker, perhaps there is a suspicious vehicle parked across from a building that houses U.S. interests. There's nothing like a camera phone to snap a quick picture and forward it to a security officer. That same approach could come in handy for a federal housing inspector or other government caseworker too.

Of course, any mobile solution connecting back into the headquarters network must be secure enough not only to protect sensitive information, but also to guard against the threat of data exfiltration. The IT shop must strike a balance between providing the right tool for the work and safeguarding information.

Keeping It Real

Finally, and most important, it's the job of the IT team to manage users' expectations. Because the public infrastructure is outside of our control, we need to provide users a quick, easy-to-use broadband speed test (and we also must ­ensure our backroom infrastructure is well maintained and sized appropriately). The Internet service in Zaire or Majuro in the Marshall Islands or Glasgow, Mont., is not going to provide the same throughput as a fiber-optic ISP in a metro area.

Anywhere, anytime computing is only going to become more critical in our fast-changing world. It's the job of federal IT leaders to figure out how to best exploit it to make their agencies and users more efficient.

<p>Photo: Welton Doby III</p>