The next time a devastating storm, such as August's Hurricane Irene, threatens the United States, the National Weather Service hopes to have new tools to help meteorologists in the field track and predict the storm's impact: tablet computers.
Under a new pilot program, NWS is readying tablets for delivery to emergency response specialists in six cities. Currently, when these specialists deploy to state and federal emergency operations centers, they carry a notebook computer or work at a desktop PC provided by the operations center.
"But you can't carry the desktop over to where the decision-makers are sitting," says Chris Strager, director of NWS' Eastern Region Headquarters and head of the agency's new Weather-Ready Nation Roadmap Team.
Using a mix of custom applications and web-based information, NWS believes tablet PCs will help its specialists better monitor conditions and provide rapid-response standup briefings to local officials. "We can brief them verbally," says Strager, "but a picture is worth a thousand words."
Fueled by growing interest in tablets, such as Apple's popular iPad, agencies are looking for ways to implement the devices in their missions. In some cases, the impetus comes from the executive level, where officials use tablets at home and want the same functionality at the office. In other cases, agency IT departments are looking at tablets as a way to improve productivity and drive down costs.
"The government is a strong proponent of using mobile devices to improve employee productivity," says Dan Shey, practice director for mobile services at ABI Research. "However, it is very dependent on the agency, and typically agencies that have lots of employees in the field are the more aggressive users."
Most early tablet programs have focused on the iPad platform, though agencies are careful to leave their options open. The stringent requirements that Apple places on software developers actually help with government adoption because federal IT professionals know that iPad apps are closely scrutinized. Analysts say the open-platform nature of Google's Android operating system is one reason that civilian agencies, at least, are approaching Android-based tablets more cautiously.
The U.S. Marshals Service, in partnership with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, recently completed a pilot of 50 iPads — 40 in the field and 10 in executive administration. Lisa Davis, assistant director of information technology for the Marshals Service, says the iPads proved their worth in the field. Agents found them especially useful for language translation, operations planning and geographic information systems applications.
But Davis notes that her agency also has an immediate need that's driving the pilot. "We have 1,200 machines [out of 9,000 across the service] that are at the end of their warranties. If I'm paying $1,700 for a laptop but $700 for an iPad, we could be saving money," she says.
To read about NIST's efforts to make Android a more secure OS, go to fedtechmagazine.com/
Working with a wireless policy developed by the Justice Department, the Marshals Service is finalizing a configuration that would let it use end-of-year funds to deploy iPads as replacements for existing systems. It is also developing its own app store for distributing Marshals Service apps and screened, third-party programs.
Of course, any agency planning to introduce tablets must address issues of security and device management. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, which develops IT security policies for government, has its own tablet pilot under way. The agency's Office of Information Systems Management purchased 55 iPads to explore how to secure them for use by NIST employees.
"As part of this pilot effort, we will be evaluating use of the iPad with a third-party e-mail app that has FIPS 140-2 validated encryption," says NIST CIO Del Brockett.