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FedTalks 2013: Highlights and Observations

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The FedTalks 2013 conference, held June 12 in Washington, brought together a motley crew of government officials, tech company executives, military contractors and civic IT experts to discuss “how technology and people can change government and our communities.” The speakers, ranging from Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) to famed impostor Frank Abagnale (more on him below) came from similarly broad backgrounds. Here is a quick rundown on some highlights and observations from the conference:

FedTalks, Innovators Listen

Challenge.gov, a federally-supported platform for civic innovation competitions, came up several times, including in U.S. CIO Steve VanRoekel’s keynote address on increasing government efficiency. The site—itself a public-private partnership with technology competition company ChallengePost—encapsulates a theme that pervaded FedTalks 2013 and that’s particularly relevant in the data science sector: as long as government agencies lack the expertise to design and implement data collection mechanisms and disciplined analytics themselves, they will need to get help from external sources. Acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini made the excellent point that in addition to the value created by the winning entries on Challenge.gov and similar platforms, other contestants often generate economic value that dwarfs the prize money being offered.

NSA CTO On, Uh, Security

From below a screen bearing the words NSA CTO, Dr. Patrick Dowd (pictured) began his presentation with “So, uh, you may have heard…” and then paused as the audience laughed. This was his only allusion to the NSA’s recently-revealed PRISM surveillance program and its accompanying controversy. The audience was left to speculate where PRISM leaker Edward Snowden fit into Dr. Dowd’s lecture on “Imperative Induced Innovation.” Instead, we were treated to an overview of security protocols the NSA hopes will deter external attacks. Despite his avoidance of the elephant in the room, Dr. Dowd’s valuable discussion on his agency’s contributions to open-source software (such as Apache Accumulo, a Hadoop-enabled distributed database that offers security at the level of individual cells) and primer on public key cryptography made his presentation one of the day’s most substantive.

Catch Me If You Can Crunch Data

The most unexpected talk came from Frank Abagnale, the impostor-turned-FBI-consultant who served as the subject of the popular book and film Catch Me If You Can. Abagnale, who lectured about his years on the run instead of his (seemingly relevant) work with the FBI, served instead as a living example of the sort of outlier who would have been caught if only he had been pursued by a little analytics. Both as an impostor pilot for Pan Am and as a check-forger in countries around the globe, Abagnale left a blatant paper trail of his illegal activities, but they were initially lost in the operations of the large organizations he defrauded.

“Hidden Potential” & Who Needs Some

Intel CIO Kimberly Stevenson’s examples of “Unlocking Hidden Potential Through Big Data Analysis” showcased dramatic returns from relatively straightforward data science techniques like predictive failure modeling and customer prioritization, but it was clear from other presentations that not even this sort of mundane analysis has taken hold in some government agencies.  To the U.S. Department of Treasury, whose CIO Robyn East acknowledged in another session that her agency was “struggling to find efficiencies” and requested that the private sector “come in and help,” Stevenson’s presentation should be quite a wake-up call indeed.

Overall, data’s role in the day’s proceedings was both central and secondary. To the tech executives who spoke, analytics was merely one prong in a larger tech strategy, alongside mobile and social innovations. To the military and security professionals, data was as much a liability as a resource, so the talks focused on what to do with the data once it’s been collected. To the civil servants, analytics would be great – if only their agencies had better change management practices to encourage their colleagues to switch over to efficient data-gathering systems.

In short, it’s great to hear serious discussion about the state of data in federal IT, but it will be years before everyone is on the same page. Not to mention using the same file formats and email systems.

Photo: FedScoop

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