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Government overlooks diamonds in its own back yard

May 26, 2015 Leave a comment

Nearly a century ago, a speech called “Acres of Diamonds” ranked high on the entertainment charts. Russell Conwell, the founder of Temple University and the author of the essay on which it was based, delivered it 5,000 times between 1900 and 1925. Although part of the American canon of rhetoric, few nowadays know much about it. The main theme of the essay and speech is simple: Often people overlook their own back yards when seeking fortune and success. It’s an old-fashioned sounding piece, but it came to mind earlier this week during a panel discussion I moderated along with Jonathan Aberman of TandemNSI and Amplifier Ventures.

Our ostensible topic was how government program managers, R&D people and executives can more readily take advantage of the entrepreneurial and start-up technology community in the D.C. region, the federal government’s back yard. But a good deal of the discussion centered on the government’s seeming fascination with Silicon Valley. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says he’ll establish a satellite office there. Defense Secretary Ash Carter also has the Silicon Valley bug. The Obama administration has recruited several appointees from the Valley, including Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, lately of Google. The White House Digital Services team is headed by another ex-Googler, Mickey Dickerson. The rest of it is heavy with people from Twitter, Facebook, Amazon and the like.

With respect to DOD, maybe a little perspective is in order. Mike Daniels has been founder, executive, seller and acquirer of federal contractors for decades. He says Valley fever has swept the government before. He counts three times over the last 35 years or so. And every time federal leaders traipse out there looking for start-up diamonds, they find out how culturally different things are out there. Without judging which is superior, Daniels says he’s never heard a Valley venture capitalist or entrepreneurial say a primary reason for a new company was to help the government solve a problem. The systems integrators and technology product companies locally have often been started by former feds, including military officers. Daniels says their orientation is, of course to make money, but their frequently-stated mission is to help the government.

Tech veteran Anup Ghosh — he founded cybersecurity outfit Invincea — comes from DARPA and so has something of a federal orientation. He says federally-focused startups proceed from a different model than those in Silicon Valley. In the D.C. region, the typical model starts with government services. This lets them win some contracts, establish a revenue stream and make a profit fairly soon. It’s a bootstrap model that can lead to second-round financing. By contract, in the Valley startups tend to lead with groundbreaking products, little thought of revenue, and the agility to keep morphing until they hit on something someone wants to buy.

Ghosh argues, the services or body-shop model doesn’t scale easily because it requires a constant linear increase in the number of people to be able to do more professional services. By contrast, products, especially software, can scale exponentially without a matching overhead increase.

The bootstrap-contract model, according to former Naval R&D guy Bob Morgan, a founder of MorganFranklin Consulting, gives the D.C. startup community a boring reputation. But often, he and others note, the products they are working on are secret because they have a national security application. Or because the government is reticent, and doesn’t want contractors talking about what they are working on.

Ghosh, Morgan, Daniels all agree, the D.C. startup environment is smaller and more specialized than that of Silicon Valley, and it lacks a catchy and enduring moniker. Daniels noted the D.C. tech community tried to brand itself back in the 1990s, but whatever name it came up with quickly faded. Silicon Valley acquired its nickname around 1980, when silicon — semiconductor design and manufacturing, as opposed to software — powered the torrid growth of the place. Plus, its name came externally and spontaneously, not from an ad agency. Throughout the world, D.C. is inseparable from the federal government. Those of us who live and work in and around D.C. know it’s a real place with real people and culture, but no ad agency could alter the external view of it.

The D.C. region is rich in startups and entrepreneurialism in cybersecurity, biology and genetics, robotics, and data analytics. From the discussion I heard, the consensus is that the federal government’s requirements remain a valuable source of money to fuel this growth activity. TandemNSI founder Jonathan Aberman correctly points out that Silicon Valley itself was fueled early on by military and NASA requirements for products pioneered by Fairchild Semiconductor and its many offshoots. (The original company in San Jose, not the one in Portland, Maine is typically put at the top of Silicon Valley genealogy charts.)

Silicon Valley today isn’t inclined towards selling to the federal government as a business goal. And, as local venturist Mark Walsh points out, big bets on tiny companies without revenue and serial business failure are common in the Valley .In the D.C. region, business failure and loss of investors’ money is less forgivable. Plus people who bootstrapped a company, got government contracts and have some sort of cash flow aren’t accustomed to the idea of ceding control to a V.C. More evidence of the big cultural divide.

All new companies, regardless of origin, face the same hurdles in selling to the government, the panelists agree. Ghosh says there’s nothing in the Federal Acquisition Regulation to prevent a company from getting a contract within five days should an urgent need arise, but typically the bureaucracy plays it safe. Often for good reason. By the same token, the purportedly 18-month minimum sales cycle for a federal agency isn’t so far off what those same companies encounter when selling to the Fortune 500.

Not fully answered the other morning were these questions:

  • Does Silicon Valley really hold the scratch to the government’s technology itch? My take, yes and no. Of course there are companies originating in the Valley that could help solve federal mission challenges. It requires a great deal of research the selectiveness. Whether the Pentagon needs a mini-Pentagon off U.S. 101 is debatable.
  • Does the government overlook the acres of diamonds in its own back yard? I don’t think so. Invincea itself is a case in point. Lots of product and services companies got their start with federal requirements, and not just items unique to the military.

In Silicon Valley, people start companies with an idea, and expect the world to join in. No one realized there was a better way to hail a taxi cab. But Uber — we’ll stretch the Valley to include San Francisco — became a valuable company,  billion dollar unicorn, in Valley parlance, without owning a single car or employing a single driver. But a mobile app will never get a human to Mars, or destroy an cutthroat enemy, or analyze a half-trilliion-dollar federal program to ferret out waste, fraud and abuse. Given the size and diversity of its missions, the government needs to talk to entrepreneurs everywhere.

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Federal open source software activities are growing

March 21, 2015 Leave a comment

Patricia M. Loui-Smicker of Hawaii was confirmed by the Senate, just the other day, as a director of the Export-Import bank. Not the kind of routine confirmation that makes the news. Gilberto de Jesus of Maryland withdrew his nomination to be chief counsel for advocacy at the Small Business Administration. The Senate Committee on on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs reported favorably on a bill “to reduce the operation and maintenance costs associated with the Federal fleet by encouraging use of remanufactured parts.”

If, like me, you sometime pause in wonder at the majesty and trivia of the federal government, a universe within the universe, then you may from time to time like browsing the daily digest of the Congressional Record. Thanks to the simple and fast web site FDsys.gov, operated by the Government Publishing Office, you can zero in on a particular day between yesterday and 1994 in a few clicks. GPO says that since FDsys became its distribution system of record in 2009, some 1 billion documents have been downloaded.

Now, the GPO has made portions of the code that controls FDsys available on GitHub, one of the more active sites for open source software communities. Among the initial chunks is FDsys Collections, which GPO describes as a specialized parser using regular expressions to extract relevant information from source documents. The collection provided covers congressional hearings. More will follow.

GPO is not alone among federal agencies contributing to GitHub. The General Services Administration has put in lots of code it says is useful for building mobile apps.

It appears the adoption of open source by the federal government is growing.  In its 2012 digital government strategy, the Obama administration stressed open data and public application programming interfaces leading to better online services, particularly mobile apps. The strategy doesn’t explicitly ask agencies to make their code public, nor to join open source communities. It does, however, call for a “new default” of exposing federal data and web APIs publicly. Although some of the strategy has been fulfilled and some not, maybe open source application code is the next logical step the strategy might have taken.

Some of the vendors sense this.  I spoke recently with Jarid Cottrell, an open source expert at Booz Allen Hamilton. BAH is planning several moves in federal open source, in the manner in which the company pushed cloud computing early on.

Contrell says the main advantage of open source code is not so much that it’s distributed free initially, but that that it fosters communities of developers. They continuously develop and improve it. And by having so many eyes on it, open source code tends to be freer of cybersecurity weaknesses, its proponents say. Open source can potentially change the economics of whole classes of software when communities create free or low cost versions of functionality otherwise dominated by expensive, proprietary software.

Open source is not free of effort. Once a team develops code for whatever function the organization needs, the code must be compiled into a runtime package and thereafter maintained. That’s why for-profit companies have formed around open source, among the oldest being Red Hat. It and others sell value added support and training services around code that is open sourced. Or they acquired proprietary products, release the code under various non-revenue license agreements, and sell value added services. That the code is available for anyone to contribute to makes the open source subscription model fundamentally different from the licensing models that apply to proprietary software.

Both models have a place in computing.  But I sometimes wonder whether super-popular proprietary products like Microsoft Word or Excel might have spawned more secure and less annoying versions had the company chosen an open source approach.

Booz Allen has created its own open source community called Project Jellyfish. It’s devoted to software for cloud connectivity and cloud brokering, which may be the next hurdle for federal agencies looking to put more data and workloads into clouds. Cotrell said Jellyfish is just part of a larger open tech initiative BAH will launch over the next few months. It will do its consulting gig, helping federal agencies understand open source. It will incubate open source communities around cloud and mobile. And will build more apps and share the code, as it has done with Jellyfish.

The White House may now be a source of acceleration for use of open source tools in federal systems. The newly appointed White House director of Technology, seems to have solid open source creds. He’s been a proponent of the OpenID Connect authentication technology. CrunchBase lists him as once being the president and director of the Open Web Foundation, while the White House blog about his appointment mentions open source work while at Facebook.

New contracting rules published last week by the General Services Administration make it harder for software vendors to tie up agencies with self-renewing licenses and support/upgrade packages. That plus the need to squeeze cost out of maintenance and operations will also give agencies impetus to at least look at open source. You can find open source software for nearly every function, from hypervisors to text editors.

Government innovation? It gets an A for effort

January 26, 2015 1 comment

You know you’ve been covering technology for a long time when your friends’ kids – whom you remember as toddlers – start showing up at conferences you’re wandering through, panels you’re moderating. But that’s what happened to me the other day at a conference on collaboration in Washington. It was designed to match innovative companies with potential federal customers.

For me, it was an unusual event if only because of the mix of casualness and neck-ties – which, by the way, does not correlate with age.

I did run into a few guys I’ve known since my days at Government Computer News in the early 1990s. We joked, this sure isn’t FOSE with the latest copiers on display. It was bracing to see so much earnest brainpower – on both the government and fledgling industry side – talking across traditional boundaries. And a jolting reminder at how much the economy has changed from when I used to cover industries like steel and engineered metal products.

I’m not sure what innovation means exactly. But one of the government people had a pretty good, down-to-earth definition. Dan Doney, the chief innovation officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said it’s finding ways to deal with the new problems you have when the old tools don’t work. Or trying new tools on persistent problems. You can’t put it in a bottle. And you can’t conjure it up at will by shoving people into open workspaces. But you know it when you see it.

Or when you know where to look. The government is learning where to look. That’s why you see so many agencies launching challenges and contests. They’re looking for ideas the bureaucracy can’t solve with the usual ways it does things.

At collaboration, the Energy Department had a table lined with one-page brochures listing challenges it has open. It’s preparing to spend a million dollars on prizes. There’s the Collegiate Wind Competition, for example. They’re not looking for a socialist professor to hold a faculty lounge gabfest, but rather teams of students to design and test a marketable wind turbine. Reading the material, I sense a subtext in this contest. Namely, the current wind turbine industry has problems with reliability, cost, and the fact that without the government forcing it, no sane utility would bother with them.

Another DOE contests has to do with lighting. In conjunction with Ford Motor Company, one seeks ideas for new automotive lighting systems. Another, in partnership with RecoveryPark, is looking for ideas for more efficient agricultural lighting for greenhouses.

I saw an impressive piece of unmanned aerial vehicle innovation. The problem with those whiny quadricopters is battery life. Flying a payload like a GoPro camera or something of similar weight, they just don’t go far enough. And the devices could be a lot more productive if they could operate in swarms. But operation doesn’t scale – one operator, one drone.

That’s according to Brandon Borko and Christopher Vo. They look like my kids age. They are my kids ages. But they’re the CEO and chief technologist, respectively, of a startup called Sentien Robotics. I couldn’t help but ask them how come they weren’t in school that day. But they’re both George Mason University engineering grads. They’ve developed software that can operate, they say, hundreds of drones autonomously, launching fresh machines as the batteries on flying ones fade. Their video showed a sort of drone rack concept, mounted on the back of an F-250. It launches charged drones while the expiring ones fly into a space on the rack. Imagine operating 100 drones with only your driver’s license.

Could you have thought of this? I don’t know what the Sentien system costs, but I’m willing to bet it’s less than the billion dollars the Defense Department would spend to have a systems integrator do it.

I spoke to one 20-something who says he started a company that creates branding narratives. I’m not sure what that even is. But it sounds like something a few government agencies could use.

A young woman from BraveUX described this chic company’s approach to app development, which its web site describes as “clever, clean, gutsy, art-meets-science, polished, , original, avant garde, modern, smart, bold, simplified, definitely not boring, full-bodied, fun, delightful, original, stylish, refined & Brave.” Hardly something you’ll find on the web site of the average federal contractor.

Elephants also exhibited at the conference, hoping to show they, too, can innovate. Booz Allen Hamilton talked about its use of crowd-sourcing platforms like Innocentive and IdeaScale to help agencies get into the innovation groove.

The event itself had one innovation you don’t see much in Washington. It ran on a Friday and Saturday. All those kids innovating don’t think in terms of a 9-5 M-F workweek. My entrée came from Jonathan Aberman, a northern Virginia venture capitalist who specializes in national security market startups locally. I moderated a discussion with him and Doney, but it was on a Friday afternoon. Our theme was that technology innovators have avenues to get their ideas in front of government, even with the procurement process in place.

And the neighbor’s kid? A shout-out to Ben Center, recent grad, now working as investor relations associate at Onevest.

What Should Be Ahead For Federal IT In 2014 After Hurricane ACA

January 6, 2014 Leave a comment

The big difference between the failure of healthcare.gov and all other federal IT development failures is this: Establishment of the site was inseparable from the law underlying it. There is no manual healthcare plan exchange. By contrast, failure to automate VA disability case processing or Office of Personnel Management retirement annuity calculations didn’t stop those activities the automation was supposed to support. They existed long before attempts to automate them. The fallback therefore consisted of using the existing process, maybe adding people in a surge to clear backlogs. That option doesn’t exist for healthcare.gov. But, as we’ve seen with the almost inane, and probably illegal, on-the-fly rewrites of the ACA’s requirements and deadlines, the online exchanges have no real fallback possibility.

In all other respects, healthcare.gov was like other failed systems, the result of boiling a toxic stew of poorly defined requirements, the wrong contractor, insufficient oversight and unclear lines of authority. Moreover, healthcare.gov was what used to be called, disparagingly, a “grand design.” The antitheses of agile, spiral development, healthcare.gov is the result of planners trying to spawn a nearly impossibly complicated system all at once. That approach has never worked and it never will.

There’s nothing in the Federal Acquisition Regulation that caused this system failure. That is, it wasn’t a procurement failure, as I’ve written before. And there’s nothing in, say, the proposed Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act that would necessarily prevent it. Thinking, sound management, following the rules already there — that is how these things can be kept from happening.

In short, a big and depressing disappointment, all the more so because of the presence of so many celebrated techies in the administration that seem to have been oblivious to what was going on at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Now comes word that the administration wants to fast-track the hiring of more technical talent into government ranks. That may sound good but it won’t solve the problems exhibited by healthcare.gov — lack of project management skill, requirements control, and clear lines of authority. When those things are in place it doesn’t matter whether the coding talent is in-house or contracted.

I say all of this as prelude to what I hope will  come ahead in 2014 for federal IT. And hoping the lessons learned will be the correct ones. Because there’s no doubt that healthcare.gov was the biggest federal IT story of 2013. It is the Obama administration’s Hurricane Katrina.

Lots of published lists of technology predictions have already hit. Many analysts think Google Glass will be a big deal. I have a personal vow never to have a conversation or any other engagement with anyone wearing them.  Anyway, I think they’ll end up being the Nehru jacket of technology — a few nerds will sport them for a while. Others are hoping for flexible smart phones. Forgiving him the Google Glass reference, I think Bob Gourley’s tech product trends as published in Federal Times  is otherwise a pretty good list.

Here’s what I’m hoping to see more of in the government IT market in the coming year. I warn you, no glamor or drama.

  • Rational cybersecurity. If healthcare.gov was the biggest story, the next biggest, or maybe bigger, story was the Edward Snowden drama. Savior of freedom or traitor, he certainly was the ultimate insider threat-turned-real. A group of Chinese government IT people I spoke to recently pointedly asked what changes in procedures had been instituted since Snowden. The episode brings together the need for continuous monitoring, ID management and specific procedures to prevent anyone from mass downloadings, even if it’s the Director of National Security.
  • Get mobility right. Let go of the BYOD idea. It only works in the public sector if a narrow set of devices is allowed and the agency has access to and control of the devices. Might as well be government-furnished.  And let go of the notion that the “desktop” PC  is dead. Pick the right device for the right situation. The hard part is software. Making applications mobile and fixed, and managing the licenses are the two hardest tasks.
  • Rightsize infrastructure. Really and actually find ways to boost interagency services sharing so the net spending on data center elements at least stops growing. Data center consolidation efforts have been going on for 20 years. It’s time to get serious about it.
  • Become a model for the post-password world. Time’s up. Everybody out of the password pool and go join ID management of the 21st century.
  • Become the Dominique Dawes of development. Agile, that is. Postulate every development project as if it was the final vault in the ’84 Olympics. Nail it then smile. It’s more than a matter of using this development library or that project management scheme. It’s a whole approach that starts with thinking and visualizing the end — then being the toughest S.O.B. there is when it comes to testing and requirements.

Two posts: An app for biz-dev app; a closer look at CMS claims

December 2, 2013 Leave a comment

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.

Healtcare.gov doesn’t quite clear the launchpad

October 15, 2013 1 comment

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.

BGOV ups the ante in federal spending data services

July 30, 2013 Leave a comment

I’ve always marveled at how the more the government talks about transparency, the more opaque it seems to become. Despite some decent efforts at revealing federal spending online, even knowledgeable people have trouble finding information they want. One piece of evidence is the vitality of the market for subscription-based information services about the government — many of which are used by the government itself. The more the government launches dashboards, data sets and web sites for every little initiative, the harder is seems to find exactly what you are looking for.

In an earlier post I described the latest entry into the spending-business opportunity market, Govini. It joined the legacy service from Deltek and the several-year-old Bloomberg Government service. No Bloomberg launched a site redesign and new features.

In the old days, services such as these had analysts who spent their time on the phone or running to document rooms in agencies. They still engage in a lot of old-fashioned research. But increasingly, services are taking a big data approach to creating information products. They ingest raw data from numerous federal sources then apply scrubbers and carefully-written algorithms to make sense of it. They feed the data to graphic visualization front ends. It amounts to a new approach to the traditional value-added data products business. Because this approach is machine-driven, it means the services can innovate new products much more often and deploy them quickly. Luckily for the paying users, there’s an arms race going on to add features and capabilities.

A case in point: Bloomberg’s new Small Business Dashboard. Subscribers can, by NAICS code, agency or combination of agencies, find out the total spend, total goal, shortfall and open opportunities for small business awards. It all displays in simple bar charts, one each for the various categories of set-aside companies. From the bar charts you can drill down to the individual vendor or contract level to find open opportunities. I could see that the Defense Information Systems agency has nearly met all of its small business goals with 63 days left in the fiscal year, where as the Energy Department appears to be billions behind.

The BGOV site takes the original Bloomberg terminal approach that puts the user in a total information environment he or she can “live” in for a working day. For example, when I was checking out the new Small Business Dashboard, a crawler indicated the court martial had released its verdict in the Bradley Manning case.

Companies pay for these data services; each must decide whether the expenditure is worth it. In all cases, it takes some diligence and training to get good at finding and interpreting the exact facts you need. You can’t make natural language queries, such as, “How much did the government spend on toner cartridges in the third quarter of fiscal 2013.” That may come down the road. In the meantime, the data-driven, analytical approach to business development has set in. As in baseball, experience and personal connections remain important, but everything works better with a solid grounding in statistics and evidence.