Homeland Security CIO moving to integrate agency IT

Steve Cooper, CIO at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, plans to move within the next 18 to 24 months to untangle a spaghetti-like mess of networks and differing data standards to create a single IT infrastructure for his agency, formed earlier this year by the merger of 22 federal agencies.

“We’re moving toward one Department of Homeland Security,” Cooper said at the E-Gov conference here today. “We want to unify and simplify the environment as rapidly as we can.”

To do so, Cooper said he plans to rely heavily on commercial applications to accomplish what is no simple task. Federal agencies have historically operated autonomously, and their IT systems weren’t designed to interact with those of other agencies. That pattern has left the department with a mess of varying standards over some seemingly simple questions, such as, “What is a name?”

Various federal systems don’t refer to names in similar ways, and they differ in their treatment of financial and human resource records. Business rules, which dictate how data is assembled, collected and accessed, also differ, Lee Holcomb, chief technical officer at the Homeland Security Department, said in an interview.

Holcomb’s job involves devising a plan to make data held by one agency accessible by other agencies that need access. Combining this data is generally known as data migration.

Holcomb said the department is now looking at things like creating a data mart or data warehouse, where all the data can be migrated into one place and kept in a way that would allow other systems to “then suck it out and use it.”

The agency is also examining best approaches for providing wireless access and plans to increase the deployment of portable devices within the next six to nine months. Smart cards and biometric identification will likely be used in some combination to authenticate access to the system.

As Homeland Security Department integration efforts take shape, agency IT officials expect to post more job advertisements in the months ahead. The dot-com bubble of the late 1990s created a large pool of IT talent, and there are many technologists who have “a desire to become part of the Department of Homeland Security mission,” said Pat Schambach, CIO for the Transportation Security Administration.

Getting a job at the agency requires a security clearance, but officials say that hasn’t been an obstacle — getting an initial secret clearance can be accomplished in as little as two weeks. Higher levels of security clearance, however, can take months.

Emerging technologies also appear to be playing a larger role at federal agencies. For instance, Cooper said federal agencies are working with commercial vendors to find ways to utilize unstructured data, such as data that isn’t located in a relational database and can’t be easily manipulated and analyzed.

The CIO Council has also formed an emerging technologies committee to examine new technologies.

“We want the government to be at the forefront (of) leveraging technology,” U.S. Air Force CIO John Gilligan said in response to a reporter’s question to a panel yesterday. “We want to be scanning the horizon and be an early adopter. We need to convey to industry what our technology needs are.”

But Craig Luigart, CTO at the U.S. Department of Education, said agencies aren’t necessarily behind the private sector. Many were early adopters of new technologies, such as voice over IP and virtual private networks, and they are now seeing returns on those investments.

“I never liked being No. 2,” he said.