Small Business Administration CIO Maria Roat has consistently pushed her team to ask, “Why not?” which has led the agency to be a leader in cloud migration and IT modernization.
Now, Roat wants to enable other federal agencies to embrace that spirit of experimentation. The SBA has deployed the cloud-based Innovation Sandbox, which lets agencies test IT innovations.
The SBA received funding from the Federal CIO Council’s Innovation Committee, which Roat serves as the chair on, to develop and implement the sandbox. The goal, Roat says, is to make it easier for agencies to safely test new technologies and methodologies.
The basic premise is to “make it easy, make it simple,” for agencies to experiment, Roat tells FedScoop. She is encouraging other agencies to get involved so that they can learn from each other.
What Will the SBA’s Innovation Sandbox Enable?
In a blog post, Roat writes that the Innovation Sandbox is an Infrastructure as a Service capability that allows for “simple, time-bound, hypothesis-based statistical experiments within a secure, controlled, cloud-based computing environment.”
The goal, Roat says, is to enable and encourage “cross-agency collaboration to leverage modern tools and technologies to test hypotheses and share their findings, data, and experiences with colleagues across the government.”
By taking advantage of available government data, the sandbox can enable new, collaborative efforts that will “bolster the conversation on government-wide data sharing and will highlight data sharing best practices,” Roat writes. These solutions can then be integrated within agencies more rapidly, boosting overall efficiency.
“As agencies work together using the Innovation Sandbox, structural and cultural challenges will surface, identifying gaps that can inform recommendations for future activities,” Roat says.
Roat notes to FedScoop that the idea of an IT sandbox is not new, and was primarily discussed in the past as a cloud-hosted space where agency data practitioners, primarily, could share and collaborate. However, as agencies started their shift to the cloud, there hasn’t been a great deal of “comfort” with the model.
Roat launched a similar effort when she served as chief technology officer of the Transportation Department and discovered that parties outside of the agency were interested. When she took over as chair of the Innovation Committee, she introduced the idea of a governmentwide sandbox, which the rest of the council embraced enthusiastically, FedScoop reports.
What Comes Next with the SBA’s Sandbox?
The sandbox environment is hosted in the SBA cloud, FedScoop reports, but is completely separate from the SBA’s main operations.
Interested federal employees can use a portal to sign in and submit an “experiment.” However, it’s not a free-for-all. The submitter must have a hypothesis for the experiment, a number for how much computing power the testing will require, and it must be something that can be accomplished, part-time, in between two and four weeks. Interested parties are strongly encouraged to contact the CIO Council as soon as possible for planning purposes.
The sandbox is not just for data experiments, but Roat tells FedScoop that data practitioners seem to be especially drawn to the concept. Her goal is to enable the creation of new innovations from existing data, and potentially have agencies come up with solutions that can scale across the government.
At the conclusion of the pilot, the CIO Council will develop a report based on agencies’ experience using the Innovation Sandbox to “determine the need and feasibility for a sustained, federal-wide sandbox” and the council “will also identify best practices for agencies to create their own sandbox,” according to the blog post.
Roat tells FedScoop that she wants agencies to feel like they can try something and fail fast, and not be afraid of that. “Like when you’re a kid — you get to build a sandcastle, and if you don’t like it, you get to try again,” she says.