Mobile app puts biz-dev in your hand
Sometimes good things do come in small packages. I’ve been intrigued by an iPhone app called Hord, pronounced hoard. The publisher, startup GovTribe, spells it with the “o” adorned by an overline – a character unavailable in WordPress. Hord is an example of using government data to build apps, but not quite in the way the Obama administration has been pushing. The app is free; the service will cost $5 per month after a user tries it for 30 days. So Hord is not in the price league of Bloomberg, Deltek or Govini.
It’s also not a comprehensive environment with consulting and a large and growing database to consult. What it is, is a way of getting instant delivery of changes in solicitations from specific agencies or specific product categories. In later versions, company co-founder Nate Nash told me, users will be able to look for specific product solicitations from specific agencies, for example, “mobile technology” from “Agriculture Department.”
Hord pulls data from the Government Accountability Office, General Services Administration, System for Award Management (SAM) and USASpending.gov. You pick the agencies and categories you want to “hoard” and then receive automatic push notifications when anything changes. One new item tells me the Coast Guard Surface Forces Logistics Center is requesting quotes for a bunch of diesel engine parts, that it has added a small business requirement, and that it was posted by Erika R. Wallace. It even give me Ms. Wallace’s e-mail address and phone number. Other feeds track awards and protests, and you can even see which hords are popular.
As an app, Hord is fast and sylish, a total mobile conception. Nash said GovTribe will issue a web version for the office later on.
Why Healthcare.gov still isn’t fixed
If you read the 8-page fix-it report from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, you could be fooled into thinking, “Gee, job done!” But look carefully and you’ll find claims that are hard to verify and others that don’t point to a business-grade level of Web site operation.
In particular, I note that as of Sunday, CMS was claiming 95.1% availability. That translates to nearly a day and a half per month of downtime. A CIO responsible for a high-activity commercial site would be canned for that level of performance if it lasted very long. Most strive for the “five nines” level of availability, which translates to 5 minutes of downtime per year. 99% uptime means three and a half days down per year.
CMS is claiming a 4x “registration throughput” improvement, 3x “database throughout” improvement, and 2x “capacity” increase — together with 5x network throughput improvement. Taking the agency at its word, the bottleneck would therefore be “capacity.” Consistent with the weakest-link theory, even with a 10x network throughout increase, users will only see improvement as extensive as the smallest improvement. For a site that was down nearly half the time and slow when it was operating, a 2x limiter on performance doesn’t sound like a triumph.
The whole episode calls into question President Obama’s belief that the failure of healthcare.gov’s launch was connected to the government’s inefficiency at IT procurement. Procurement is a popular canard. Sometimes it really is the problem. But not in this case. The awards to contractors were made in reasonable time using an existing multiple-award vehicle in place at CMS. The technologies used are neither exotic nor out of date as a result of slow procurement. It looks to me like a matter of pure project management, or lack thereof.
CMS cites twice-a-day “standup war room” meetings. It says “the team is operating with private sector velocity and effectiveness” with “clear accountability and decision-making.” Well, okay. The report shows things going in the right direction. But it deepens the mystery of what was going on since March 2010 when the Affordable Care Act became law.
Over the years I am regularly reminded about how much software permeates industrial activity far beyond the software industry itself. Thirty years ago the procurement director at McDonnell-Douglas told me that software was the most challenging thing to predict planning and executing on aircraft design and production schedules.
A lot of software expertise resides in companies that don’t publish software. In the national defense domain, software development is diffused among Defense Department components and its many contractors.
That’s prelude to why I was intrigued by a press release last month from Lockheed Martin. Engineers in the company’s Information Systems and Global Solutions unit donated a data search engine/discovery tool to the open source community Codice Foundation. Codice is a 2012 offshoot of the Mil-OSS project. Both work to move defense related software from the proprietary world into the open source world. Codice members modeled the effort after the granddaddy of open source foundations, Apache.
By the way, Apache last month released a new version of the widely-used Hadoop framework for distributed, big-data applications. It was a very big deal in the open source and big data application development world. For the uninitiated, here is a good explanation of Hadoop from InformationWeek.
Lockheed donated to Codice what the company describes as the core software in the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) Integrated Environment, or DIB. It’s a mouthful, but DOD uses it to share ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) data. The donated core is dubbed the Distributed Data Framework (DDF).
Andy Goodson, a Lockheed program manager, explained that the DIB started as an Air Force-led joint program a decade ago. Its basic function is to make data discoverable. As an open source tool, the DDF can be adapted to any domain where multiple data sources must also be rendered discoverable by an application. It makes data where it resides available to application algorithms as well as to processes resulting in the data’s presentation to users.
In effect, the DDF furthers the fast-emerging computing model that treats data and applications as separate and distinct resources. The federal government has been trying to adapt to this model for some time, as manifest in (among other things) the Digital Government Strategy. In practice, to be useful, data even from disparate sources within a domain must adhere to that domain’s standards. But it need not be connected to a particular algorithm or application, so the data is reusable.
Goodson said Lockeed found that the code, because it is independent of any particular data source, was not subject to export control even though it was used in a sensitive military environment. It had advice and counsel from its federal client in this determination. Now, the software is available through Codice to other agencies, systems integrators and developers dealing with the issue of big data applications.
Hit cable TV drama “Mad Men” is noted for its attention to period detail. In one recent episode I spotted a character using a Kodak Instamatic 104 camera. Remember Flashcubes? I would wager a million closets still harbor an Instamatic tucked into the darkness. Nearly every family had one model or another of an Instamatic from the camera’s introduction in 1963 to its demise in 1988. If you went to college and traveled in the late ’60s through the ’70s you probably still have scrapbooks filled with square, somewhat garishly color photos. The handsome Instamatic 100 and 104 were slightly clunky, and, as pieces of industrial design, invoke their era, sort of like the democratic Ford Pinto:
Just as no one would consider the Pinto for limousine service or luxury motoring, not one ever considered the Instamatic for any serious photography application.
Today’s Instamatic is the smartphone. Or used to be. The iPhone camera app even has a feature that produces square pictures, the format of the Instamatic’s 126 cartridge film format. Like the point-and-shoot film cameras, smart phones lack zoom or interchangeable lenses.
That’s where the similarity ends.
Thanks to the photographic software that was unknown when the Instamatic reined, even point-and-shoot smart phones have become fairly powerful imaging devices. Enhanced with a tool like True HDR that compresses dynamic range that otherwise is too wide for a smartphone, you can produce astonishing pictures. As organizations including government agencies mobilize their workforces, smartphones are fully capable of standing in for “real” cameras in a variety of situations. HDR tools give you the digital equivalent of the old maxim, “Expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights.” Below is a straight show with the iPhone camera app. The second is an HDR photo. Now the “bald” sky and lack of detail in the dark leaves on the left.
But after spending a few weeks concentrating on the finer points of smartphone photography, I still feel their tiny lenses present the biggest challenge. I say that in contrast to their lack of true zoom lenses, which is becoming less of a disadvantage (forget about digital zoom).
With enough pixel density and a perfectly steady hand, you can enlarge any photo to the magnification you want because perspective is a function of distance from the subject, not the focal length of the lens. In zooming in on a wide-field shot, though, you see the limited pixel density give out to the digital equivalent of film grain pretty quickly. So for serious telephotography, you still need a good digital body to which you can attach a telephoto lens.
This picture shows a distant hillside development through glass a few feet away:
Here is a part of the same image enlarged as if shot with a telephoto lens. You get the telephoto appearance, but the resolution doesn’t quite hold up. In fact it has the approximate resolution of an Instamatic image:
According to iPhoto data, the picture contains 3.1 megabits — 3264 by 2448 pixels, insufficient to blow it up too much. Given the progress in lens, software and resolution, I feel that eventually smart phone cameras will come close to rivaling expensive digital cameras. Newer smartphones are getting up to 8 megapixels sensors. But you’ll still need some way to hold the phone-camera steady and fire it without poking it.
I was thinking about all of this on a recent two-week, overseas vacation trip. At one time I would have traveled with two Nikon Fs and four or five lenses together with fistfuls of Kodachrome canisters. But I never really made the transition to professional grade digital photography. This trip was the first time I tried to do more or less serious photography with an iPhone.
My conclusion: At this point, smartphones are pretty darn capable photographically, but it’s an effort to produce the effect you want if you’ve spent decades with large, low-glare lenses and complete control over f-stop and shutter speed. Still, for some commercial and documentary uses, the latest generation of smartphones are capable photography devices. With their communications functions and sharing apps they are more useful in some situations than regular cameras. The other benefit is, now I’m starting to become re-inspired about photography itself, which at a long-ago stage in my life was a consuming passion.
I hope the model smiling happily from the home page of healthcare.gov changes her hair-do. This 21st century Betty Crocker may have a lot of trouble out in public from people with complaints about the main federal health care exchange site.
Through the runup to and the duration of the federal government partial shutdown, the technology front has been active. And by far the dominant story is the dismal launch of http://www.healthcare.gov. Whether you think the Affordable Care Act is the finest legislation of our generation or a communist plot, you can’t escape that the web site is a big, big problem. One piece of evidence: Even the New York Times, possibly the most fervent champion of the Obama administration agenda, felt compelled to write a detailed expose of what went wrong.
On our Federal Drive show of Thursday, Oct. 3, the third day of the exchange (and a full week before the big papers were on to the meltdown), we had an interview with Ryan McElrath, the chief technology officer of AmericanEagle.com, a large web site developer in Des Plaines, Ill. His company has done sites for pro football teams in the Super Bowl. It’s also done some major federal sites. He noted one smart thing Health and Human Services did do was replicate the front end of healthcare.gov using a content delivery network operated by web services company Akamai. So capacity wasn’t exactly the problem. The problem was that infinite capacity is insufficient to overcome logic problems in the basic engine of the exchange.
In effect, HHS built an e-commerce site with lots of complex interactions, compounded by rules which were apparently difficult to translate into code. So much so, the administration is not even enforcing the means testing for subsidized insurance coverage. This became an issue in the acrimonious budget debates.
McElrath said his company’s initial analysis indicated programming and architecture problems. They stemmed from how many disparate database calls and compares a single account creation entails. It appeared the developers didn’t vet the site with all of the popular browsers. Some functions didn’t work even in Microsoft Internet Explorer. McElrath says the cloud deployment should have allowed the site to scale up, but the bottleneck was likely the programming.
We know now HHS, and specifically the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) didn’t manage the project well. Requirements were late. Plus money was insufficient. CMS acted as its own systems integrator, a set-up that has had mixed results at best in the history of large government IT projects. The law required HHS to launch a Big Bang deployment on Oct. 1. It would have been better to roll the thing out slowly, function by function or state by state. Here some Republicans forced a political brouhaha by trying to delay the ACA for a year, and HHS may have ended up delaying it all by itself.
My question is, where were all the crowd-sourcing, cloud-computing, agile-developing, data-dot-goving, code-a-paloozing studs who have been swept into so many agencies by the Obama administration? There is certainly no shortage of smart techies with good track records. Why this seemingly under-funded, traditional, and frankly discredited, grand-design approach that has bedeviled federal IT development for decades?
In past project, it was government agencies themselves who suffered the consequences. Whether the FBI had a case management system or the Air Force a logistics system or nothing to show for millions was interesting to appropriators and overseers, but none of the late and over-budget projects ever affected the public all that much.
In this case, the public dove into healthcare.gov and hit the bottom of an empty pool.
Something’s been bugging me about all of the contemporary discussion on mobility, mobile devices, and the federal mobility strategy. A star of federal mobility, Rick Holgate of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, gave me a clue some months ago. I’d been using my two iOS devices and found them extremely resistant to the function of editing documents. Rick showed me a small technique I hadn’t known: Simply holding your finger on a word for a moment causes that area of the screen to magnify. You can then move the curser to the middle of a word just by sliding it. I’m certain I was the last person in the world to learn that trick. Since then I’ve shown it to a couple of other people and surprised them. It’s absolutely necessary since iOS doesn’t support a mouse, and in any case iPads don’t have USB ports, God forbid.
Say what you will about Windows 8, but at least you can punch your forefinger into the middle of the word and the cursor will go there.
Also, relative to now, the mobile versions of applications like WordPress and Google Docs were buggy and erratic as late as a few months ago. The most recent updates have eliminated many of the bugs that prevented you from editing documents more easily.
At last week’s Mobility Summit, put on by the Mobile Work Exchange, the thing that’s been bugging me got a name, courtesy of George Jakabcin, the CIO of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. We were co-moderating a wrap-up session at the summit. His word was, “content.” Mobile devices are primarily designed to consume and display, but not create, content.
Duh! Why couldn’t I articulate that earlier? By “content” I mean written documents. Others mean business grade spreadsheets, or presentations. If by “written” you mean tweets or text messages, then fine. But if you mean field reports, white papers, investigations, detailed memorandums, or policy statements, you’d be crazy to try and originate them on a mobile device.
Of course this seems obvious. I do lot of white papers, speeches and ghost-written pieces for a number of Beltway companies. Writing, I like to tell people, is easy. You sit in front of your screen — it used to be your typewriter — and wait for the blood drops to form on your forehead. The writing I do requires a lot of research, and therefore lots of open web sites and source documents. At my main setup I have 475 square inches of display space, and wish I had half again more. Plus a mouse and full-sized, full travel keyboard. Even trying to do this sort of work on a large notebook is a pain, with only one screen. As for Android or iOS mobile devices, forget about it. In some ways, these are basically TSR — terminate-and-stay-resident — operating systems like CP/M (kids, look it up).
At this point in the mobile revolution, most federal use is confined to e-mail, text messaging, SharePoint for the more advanced, and of course making phone calls. A few agencies, like the Agriculture Department and FEMA, have mobile apps for specific tasks. Most haven’t yet mobile-ized their Web applications. But largely missing from the discussions is the basic distinction between creating and viewing content. As telework, which generally means using a remote PC hooked up through a VPN, transforms into mobile work, which means certain types of devices used anywhere, the create-consume distinction needs to be acknowledged.
As does the fact that content creation on mobile devices is mostly a nightmare.
The mobility crowd will have a stronger sell if it refrains from overselling what professionals can reasonably do on mobile devices. I’ve heard the stories of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanding that everything be served up to her on an iPad. I’m willing to bet her speech writers and presentation-makers didn’t originate any of her content on one.
I’m as addicted to my iPhone as anyone. Mine brings in three e-mail accounts for various pieces of my life, a library of YouTube music videos to practice along with for the cover band I’m in, do Instagram, Twitter and all the rest. Just the other night, I’d forgotten my recording kit for a radio interview. When I got to the wi-fi equipped restaurant where the guest was waiting, I downloaded a competent — and free — voice-recording app that was good enough for broadcast. (Hear it here; it’s the interview with RSA’s Mike Brown.)
But the heavy, professional, highly paid-for stuff? That still take a conventional computer.
When I was very young, family vacations to Atlantic City – decades before casinos – would include a stop to visit an elderly couple living in Woodbury, N.J. My parents had known them since before they, my folks, were married. One of my most vivid memories is of Snyder’s Smoke Shop in downtown Woodbury, with its seemingly endless variety of penny candy, little toys and comic books. Another memory is of a tiny model airplane that hung on a short string in the archway between the living room and dining room in the home of that couple, Jack and Hazel.
I once asked my mother about the plane. “That’s a B-17,” she told me. I looked closer and noted its four miniature propellers. Turns out, my mother had corresponded with Hazel’s son during World War II when mom was still in high school. Once on leave Ray Jackson visited Washington, D.C. and spent a couple of nights in my grandparents’ spare room in their row house in Petworth. He took my mother out to dinner. Returning to Europe, he was killed soon after, when the B-17 of which he was co-pilot was shot down over Germany, as half of them were. Although she barely knew the son, my mother stayed close with his mother. She and Jack were like third grandparents. Hazel lived until the 1980s, and I always equated her with B-17s.
I tell this story as backdrop to my recent dream-come-true flight aboard one of the dozen or so still-flying B-17s. It’s operated by the Liberty Foundation. The Foundation’s B-17 was a late build, so it never saw combat. But it’s painted in the markings of the most famous B-17, the Memphis Belle. That plane and its storied crew were the subject of a 1990 movie by the same name, in which the Foundation’s B-17 substituted for the actual one. (That historic B-17 was allowed to corrode outside and be vandalized for many years by the city of Memphis. Now Air Force museum experts at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton are restoring it.)
Somewhere along the line I became an airplane fanatic. I’m not a pilot, and I know only the rudiments of operating any plane, much less a four-engine bomber. But I especially love four-engine piston planes, the distinct sound of which has mostly disappeared. I can’t say what it is that make that type of aircraft so appealing to me. Until last week, I may have actually flown on one, probably a DC-7 or Constellation, maybe twice in my life, both times before I was 10 years old. So when an e-mail came saying the “Movie Memphis Bell” was offering journalists flights, I leapt at the chance.
The other reporters probably didn’t know the roar they heard when the plane came in (to Martin State Airport north of Baltimore) came from one of the great mechanical innovations of the 1930s – the Wright Cyclone radial engine. Wright developed its Cyclones into a variety of sizes and capacities. Despite knowing how hot it was, I walked up to one of the Belle’s engine nacelles and touched the engine mounted immediately behind the propeller. Just to say I touched one.
Here’s a secret: When I need a mental break, I watch YouTube videos of vintage radial engines that mechanics nuts have rescued, mounted on trailers so they can haul them to engine meets, start ‘em up and watch ‘em run. The B-17 has 9-cylinder Cyclone 1820s – 1,820 cubic inches of displacement. More exiting is the Duplex Cyclone 3350, 18 cylinders in two rows. When it starts, it belches big globs of fire out the exhaust pipe. Four of those babies hauled up the B-29 “Enola Gay”, which dropped Little Man on Hiroshima.
The Liberty Belle Foundation’s chief pilot, Ray Fowler, has a weekday job. He’s a jet pilot for Delta Airlines. He explains that this B-17 was built not by Boeing, which engineered the plane for the Army, but under license by the Douglas Aircraft Company in Long Beach, Calif. It took three companies to build B-17s in sufficient quantities to keep the Army Air Corps supplied. Women flew the new planes, sans their protective armament, over to Europe.
Because this particular B-17 lacks the armor and much of the heavy apparatus of a combat plane, it’s relatively light. That plus the natural stability of the design made for a smooth takeoff. Once aloft, we passengers could leave our decidedly primitive seats and visit all areas of the plane. We took turns crawling under the cockpit to the nose. There we sat in the bombardier’s chair and took in the magnificent, 360-degree view through the Plexiglas nosecone. We could poke our heads up through the open canopy in the radio room, getting views as in an open cockpit biplane. We threaded our way through the bomb bay on a six-inch wide catwalk. We could chat with Fowler and co-pilot Melissa Foures as they adjusted the trims and engine controls like manifold pressure and cowl flaps.
One of our passengers that day was the diminutive Larry Hilte, who flew some 35 missions as a ball turret gunner in B-24s out of Spinnazola, Italy. Now, our 25-minute flight took place on a warm September day. Because the B-17 burns 200 gallons of high octane gasoline per hour, and climbing uses the most fuel. Fowler took us up to only 1,000 feet. But Hilte reminded us that the B-17 and B-24 bombing runs ran up to 25,000 feet. The B-17 is unpressurized and has no heating system, so the men had to use oxygen masks and bundle up with electrically-heated trousers and boots just to survive a 6- or 8-hour frigid ordeal of a mission.
What might have been going through young men’s minds as they climbed into the narrow, metal, totally unadorned interior of their plane, knowing they had a better than even chance of not returning alive, or even of returning? What kind of bonding, I wonder, occurred among the 10 crew members whose lives were locked into mutual dependence?
Enough World War II lore, and B-17 lore alone, has been written to fill small libraries. I have little to add on that front. But because WW II veterans are dying at a rate of several thousand per week, soon all we’ll have are the stories and hardware artifacts. Luckily we have men and women dedicated to maintaining these artifacts for future generations to see, touch, and smell.
Photos: Immediately below, me sitting in the nose cone where the Norden bomb sight was located; middle, reproduced nose art of the original Memphis Belle; bottom, a view of the cockpit.
Ever since the luggable Osborne of the mid 1980s, an ideal, do-all portable computer has hovered just out of reach. Do-all was realized when 15-inch and larger notebook PCs came into the market. Ideal? Not so much if long battery life, low temperature and light weight figured into your calculus.
The astonishing blooming of device types and sizes in the mobility revolution reminds me of those intensely-lit electronic shop store windows on Broadway – stuffed to the ceiling with devices of every conceivable description.
As a Mac user for many years, I’ve been intrigued by the Macbook Air, the first of the full-powered notebook rendered ultra-light by great mechanical engineering, deletion of a DVD drive, and use of a solid state storage. But the price, high even by Apple standards, put me off and I still haven’t bought one.
Windows 8, with its touch screen capabilities has spawned yet another class of ultralight in which the screen, actually the computer, pops out to become a tablet with a software keyboard. I’ve been trying one out, the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix Detachable Ultrabook. It has a generous 11.5-inch (diagonal) touch screen, and it’s powered by a highly capable Intel Core i7 vPro processor. I found it attractive and solidly put-together, as I’ve come to expect from the ThinkPad series dating back forever. My model, without a mobile broadband chip, runs about $1,900 – a serious piece of change.
The computer is relatively lightweight at 3.8 pounds, compact at 11.5 inches wide and 8.5 inches deep. And thin at less than one inch. It’s small enough that it lets you eliminate the “second brief case”. It slides nicely into the rear zippered case of my L.L.Bean brief case. The charger, though, is clunky and because of the way the wall cord and computer cord are attached to it, the cords don’t wrap around it easily. Also, you must supply your own Velcro cable tie to keep it all together.
The Lenovo’s display is sharp and bright, but default fonts on web pages are simply too small to read easily, at least by these 58-year-old eyes. In fact, this Lenovo has a retro feature – namely a stylus that stores in a hole on the top of the unit. In operating routine functions in, say, Google Docs or at WordPress, the stylus is practically a necessity to invoke tiny icons. Be careful, though. The stylus is not tethered so it’s easy to lose.
But the negatives add up. The machine is less a tablet than reworking of a PC to include a software keyboard mated with a customized mechanical keyboard-dock. The keyboard is excellent, firm and responsive. But the design has unfortunate implications.
For one, most of the weight is in the tablet part, so Lenovo by necessity limits how far back it can tilt, lest it flop over on its back. A flimsy plastic limiter is mounted to the keyboard; the machine simply doesn’t open wide enough for some viewing situations. (The limiter piece is the only mechanically questionable part of this machine.) Worse, on more than one occasion when I released the machine from the dock to go to tablet mode, it crashed and I had to restart it.
Battery life is another matter. On a full charge, I found the Lenovo down to half power in about an hour. I’d give it a generous battery rating of three hours, not the claimed eight. That’s notebook territory, not tablet. When clapped shut but not powered down, the battery charge dissipated within a day. So this machine is like earlier generations of portables in that your first task on arriving in a conference room or airport terminal is to scan for an electrical outlet you can sit near.
Using the machine in charging mode made it uncomfortably hot on the back. Two tiny fans located on the dock couldn’t quite keep up.
I can’t comment on the software. From Lenovo the machine unfortunately went first to Federal News Radio’s IT department, where the guys rolled back the version of Windows from 8.1 to 8.0 in order to accommodate an ancient version of Adobe Audition we use. They also installed a virtual station desktop as one of the application tiles on the home screen, spoiling the full experience you’re supposed to get with Windows 8. Windows 8 has well-known of issues, but that’s not Lenovo’s doing.
Judging the machine, though, from what I do – writing – I found come anomalies. The big trackpad-button panel seemed to have a life of its own, sometimes barely responding, sometimes anchoring itself on a word and then highlighting whole paragraphs. Between the standard keyboard controls, the trackpad, the stylus and the touch screen, the user has a lot of ways to navigate and it takes some practice to find the right ones.
I’d judge the Lenovo UltraBook Helix Detachable Ultrabook a decent Version 1.0 for a Ultrabook-tablet combo. It’s sturdy, compact, fast and good-looking. The company needs to address battery life and the undocking-while-running issues.