Virtual Reality Revolutionizes High-Stress Training

Virtual Reality Revolutionizes High-Stress Training

The number of calls to fire departments continues to rise each year, but most of those calls are medical emergencies. The number of fires have actually fallen over the past decade, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Today, America’s 27,000 fire departments face an average of fewer than 50 fires annually.

Most of those fires are residential – meaning firefighters get precious little practice combatting the full range of fires and situations they could face in life-or-death circumstances on the job –from combatting blazes in high-rise towers to containing explosions in industrial buildings and evacuating burning hospitals.

Conventional smoke house trainers do little to solve that challenge. They simulate only a small range of scenarios – and environmental regulations limit how frequently they can be used.

Enter virtual reality. The Orange County (Fla.) Fire Rescue Department, one of the largest in the country, is turning to VR to improve the way it trains fire department lieutenants managing fire situations in the county. With support from a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the department worked with the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Simulation and Training (IST) to develop a new Incident Command training system.

But don’t get the wrong idea. This is not firemen gone wild with the latest gaming technology. Department leaders initially did want to go all in with the highest-end VR headsets they could find, contracting partner Eileen Smith nixed that idea. As director of IST’s E2i Creative Studio, she says the appeal of new technology is often more about “wonderment and awe” than whether it can make a real difference in improving training.

The main challenge was that lieutenants had different levels of experience. While older Orange County battalion chiefs now in their sixties, had roughly 100 fires before they were promoted to lieutenant, younger lieutenants typically had fought just three. Some couldn’t even read smoke.

The existing training was insufficient: a collection of dull lecture slides and bound instruction books. The test at the end was a video-based simulation with limited interaction. What was needed was more intensity and more stress, so lieutenants could truly learn to work under the same pressures they would face in real life. They needed to assess a scene in real time, take in visual cues and live audio from other participants – and see the consequences of their actions. In the resulting simulations, every decision lieutenants make – or fail to make – is reflected. Simulations can also be paused to correct major mistakes on the go.

Rather than don head-mounted VR displays, Smith’s team opted for a 10x18-foot screen, allowing participants to wear breathing masks that measure stress. “I’m putting you inside a 3-D environment, even if it’s on a screen, that you are interacting with and it is dependent on you,” Smith explains. “All events stop except in our case, the fire keeps burning. All events stop until you make a decision. In a sense, there is almost a co-creation of the experience. You have to be involved.”

Dr. Mark Nesselrode, a retired Navy captain and now Solution Architect for the Training Sector of General Dynamics Information Technology’s Global Services Division, used to test sailors’ capacity for stress by putting them in gasmasks and introducing chemical smoke. Those who couldn’t handle the claustrophobic experience were first to rip off their masks.

Now Nesselrode pushes the envelope in simulating civilian firefighting by experimenting with sound, darkness, realistic depictions of flame and smoke, and haptics – that is, the simulated physical response of inanimate objects – to bring sailors closer to real-world stressors.

“Firefighting is really, really hard,” he says. In addition to the visual, aural and haptic elements, “there’s a huge amount of physics involved,” including understanding multiple modes of heat transfer in a real fire, particle interactions with surfaces and turbulence due to cooling. Combining physics-based game engines that adhere to the sensory experience of fire has, Nesselrode says, “permitted us to look at ‘composability’ of a potential task and we can assess the time, cost, and workflow required.”

Firefighting, he adds, could also be applied to other service branches and to power plants, heavy manufacturing, airports and municipal needs.

Of course, immersive simulators aren’t always necessary. Nesselrode and GDIT have had significant success with systems that animate shipboard engineering spaces, using conventional display technologies, rather than VR.

The ultimate measure of success in any training regimen is the extent to which it improves understanding and preparedness. That’s especially true in fields such as firefighting, close combat and emergency medicine where drills are designed to help trainees maintain their cool under intense pressure and in the face of sometimes horrific scenes.

Rob Parrish, Deputy Director at the U.S. Army’s Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation, says VR has been demonstrated to significantly increase knowledge acquisition of tactical casualty care skills when compared to other training treatments that do not employ VR technologies.”

VR is particularly useful in training applications where spatial awareness is important. Courtney McNamara, a computer scientist with the Advanced Gaming Interactive Learning Environment (AGILE) Team at the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division in Orlando, cites aircraft carrier flight decks as a case in point.

“There are aircraft moving and launching, a lot of big equipment,” McNamara says. “As these engines are on, the intakes and [exhaust] … can blow sailors over …. It’s almost like a ballet of movement as these operations are happening – where it’s safe to move, where it’s not safe to move – and you have to be able to look 360 degrees, because things are coming in all directions.”

You can’t really simulate that environment with conventional cameras and monitors, McNamara explains. But “if you could put a user in a VR headset, drop them in and let them move around and see the chaos in all its glory,” the training can be powerful and informative. If trainees approach an unsafe area, the system can alert them, or trainers can “pause the sim, tell them to look to the right to see that there’s a jet coming.”

Indeed, VR simulations are so good at transporting trainees and helping them learn appropriate responses to stress-inducing stimuli that researchers have begun to use the technology therapeutically. The Virtual Reality Medical Center in San Diego uses VR sessions to treat various anxieties and phobias, as well as PTSD experienced by vets. The center uses exposure therapy with VR simulations to ease patients back into traumatic episodes to help them confront them. The trick was to get patients to remove the psychological stigma that they were damaged. “We worked hard to get over that,” says Dr. Mark Wiederhold, the center’s CEO. “We didn’t call it therapy. We called it training. They’d come in and do a couple ops. We had much, much higher acceptance.”

Doctors measure patients’ heart rate and skin conductivity, which can help determine their emotional state. This helps set what Wiederhold calls the “the velocity of exposure.” He also recruited veterans from the Art Institute of San Diego to design the VR environments. The extra verisimilitude helped. He says VRMC’s success rate is 80 percent, while the VA managed only 46 percent.

VR, Wiederhold says, is “one of the most powerful techniques we have available to us if used intelligently and correctly.”

Not all VR needs to incorporate head-mounted displays, however. Gregory Welch, professor of computer science at the University of Central Florida College of Nursing, is developing what he calls a physical-virtual patient simulator – an advanced, interactive mannequin. Conventional mannequins have long been used to teach students how to start an IV or intubate patients. But Welch aims to take mannequins to a whole new level of reality.

Welch’s computer-powered, translucent mannequins are powered by computers and can visually simulate capillary response through translucent skin. They also can modify pulse and produce variations in temperatures and breathing pattern. Race or gender can be changed in a flash. And the mannequins can move and communicate, if needed. Welch’s team is focusing now on perfecting facial features, such as drooping motions in the lips and eyelids that might indicate the warning signs of a stroke.

Welch says there is still much work to do before these technologies will be widely accepted, but he sees a future in which such technologies work with, rather than replace, conventional training. “In my mind these are complimentary,” he says. “They allow you to give different experiences to nurses or medical students.”

The need for training tools that can be tailored to the particular requirements of different users extends to just about every field. Indeed, one of the promises of developing these technologies is that, as they are spread across larger and larger user bases, the costs begin to fall. The Navy plans to begin shifting up to half of its naval nuclear reactor prototype training from textbook to hands-on simulation early in 2017, Nesselrode says.

“Instead of reading a tech manual and referring to either a separate print or schematic, you’ll be able to go through the virtual engine room and see the entire plant, and as the capability expands, operate the equipment either individually or as part of a watch team,” Nesselrode says. “That’s a training revolution.”

Related Articles

GDIT Recruitment 600×300
Tom Temin 250×250
GM 250×250
GovExec Newsletter 250×250
Cyber Resilience Workshop 250×250
Cyber Education, Research, and Training Symposium 250×250
December Breakfast 250×250

Upcoming Events

Vago 250×250
USNI News: 250×250
Nextgov Newsletter 250×250
GDIT Recruitment 250×250
NPR Morning Edition 250×250
Mobile Tech Summit 250×250
Winter Gala 250×250
AFCEA Bethesda’s Health IT Day 2018 250×250
Virtual Reality Games Fuel a Military Training Revolution

Virtual Reality Games Fuel a Military Training Revolution

Not so long ago, head-mounted virtual reality (VR) displays were beyond affordability. Now capable systems like the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive cost under a grand. That’s good news for military trainers looking to cut costs by creating tightly engineered virtual environments that replace live role players, full-scale shoot houses and bring training closer to troops.

“We’re in a pretty tough budget environment,” says Lt. Gen. (Ret) Thomas Baptiste, president and CEO of the Orlando-based non-profit VR trade consortium National Center for Simulation. “In an austerity environment, how do you train [soldiers returning home]? How do you train them at home station?”

The answer lies in consumer gaming technologies, which offer the scale to bring down costs and deliver local training to what the military calls “the point of need,” rather than limited to regional or national training centers.

Virtual reality can safely replicate otherwise expensive and dangerous training scenarios, letting trainers repeat and modify as needed. For complex maintenance tasks, machines can perpetually be taken apart and rebuilt in VR without fear of wearing down real parts. And because trainees can train anyplace they can hook up to a computer – as opposed to jetting off to a life-size simulator – time and travel can be saved.

Army VR
VR technology enables the Army’s Close Combat Tactical Trainer (CCTT), originally created to provide virtual training support for mechanized infantry, expand into other areas. The Dismounted Soldier Training System, an outgrowth of CCTT, lets individual soldiers train in the same virtual environment used by crews of M1 Abrams tanks and M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

The Army Research Lab Orlando’s Simulation and Training Technology Center (ARL_STTC) researches not only augmented reality for dismounted soldiers, but mixed reality in which virtual elements such as people, targets or ballistics can be mapped into a live field of view. “Can we put a live soldier out in the woods and provide them virtual opposing forces with realistic effects ad accurate ballistic solutions?” asks science and research training specialist Col. Harry Buhl, ARL_STTC deputy director. Virtual elements have to not only look realistic, but behave as if tangible, moving behind objects rather than through them.

The real prize Buhl says is not just to design a mixed reality simulation with one soldier and a few augmented virtual enemies in a live environment, but to “get the larger capability, where we’re dealing with formations of tanks and Bradleys and multiple soldiers. That’s a little farther down the road.”

As a training technology VR is helpful, but still a simulation.

“You learn what’s supposed to happen, but you know it’s not real,” says Dr. Mark Nesselrode, Capt. USN, (Ret.), now a solution architect for training with General Dynamics Information Technology. “It’s not bad training.” But the ability to blend VR and reality could take training to a new level. “If you’re in a virtual environment and it looks like your ship, then when you train in augmented reality, and it is aboard your ship – that’s huge.”

Making all this possible are rapid developments in computer technology, beginning with high-speed, low-power processor chips and continuing with increased network capability and better bandwidth compression algorithms. Most important: The inexpensive, high-resolution LCD displays developed for smart phones and commercial game engines developed to drive consumer video games can do double duty as military training tools.

Commercially-licensed game engines like Unity from Unity Technologies and Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 have enabled GDIT to rapidly create a series of shipboard engine-room trainers for the Navy that provide point-of-need scenario training that in the past, would have required expensive life-sized simulators. Those old systems relied on custom software and substantial investments and timelines. The new technology changes the rules and leave the simulation technology development to the experts.

“We don’t see a major need for the Army to be building game engines,” Buhl says.

Defining Presence
One promise of the immersive nature of virtual reality training is what experts call presence: the notion the VR experience is so profoundly real, a user feels fully present in its environment.

“You sort of got something if you can suspend disbelief enough to make their heart beat faster, make them sweat,” says Baptiste. “It can’t just be a carnival ride or a Disney experience.”

Michael Abrash (then with game maker Valve), now chief scientist at Oculus, described in a 2014 paper the technical elements needed for creating presence:

  • Displays with at least 80 degrees field of view to provide peripheral visual cues for better context and orientation
  • Resolution of 1080p (HD) or better for improved clarity and realism
  • Low pixel persistence to prevent blurring
  • Refresh rates better than 50Hz to both eliminate motion artifacts and improve motion response time to reduce simulation sickness

Though today’s VR systems match those metrics, simulator sickness continues to be a challenge. Improved screen resolution provides better realism and clarity. According to Stephen Hodgson, virtual solutions product developer for training and simulation at Saab Defense and Security USA, there’s been great progress with head-related transfer function (HRTF), which mimics the way humans perceive and locate sounds – letting systems tune sound profiles to individual users. New graphics cards also help. The NVIDIA 1080 graphics cards, released in May, are optimized for virtual reality headsets.

Commercial VR headsets, already not heavy, will get lighter with time. Bandwidth is increasingly capable of supporting multi-user scenarios and wireless connectivity will eventually allow VR users to operate untethered, increase the usefulness and safety of simulations.

But limitations remain. Though avatar generation has improved, there’s a gulf between close and convincing. The so-called “uncanny valley” effect results in users rejecting a computer-generated human that looks somewhat, but not convincingly lifelike.

Resolution and scale create other problems. The Army can take advantage of dynamic terrain programs that alter the performance of a vehicle moving through dirt after it turns to mud in the rain. But while commercial gaming engines might incorporate one square kilometer of terrain, the distances of 90 square kilometers demanded by Army tank training requirements, is too much real estate to render in the highest graphical detail and still display in real time.

Feedback of All Sorts
Haptics – the ability to deliver physical touch feedback to users – presents another hurdle. Haptics can also allow users to see their hands in virtual environments, adding an element of realism. Despite progress, however, experts say tactile feedback is still years behind visual or aural response.

In some cases this means that an old-fashioned mouse and computer screen may provide superior training to VR. “You have very, very detailed maintenance capabilities using a mouse, but when you put the helmet on, and you get into the environment, the fidelity and accuracy goes down significantly,” says Pete Swan, Business Development with VT Mäk, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based modeling & simulation software firm.

Buhl says bringing haptics to large-scale, collective training environments the Army is building will require significantly more work – enough that it’s not yet clear if the payoff will be equal to the effort.

“Is this a promising path forward or is this an empty well?” Buhl asks. “We don’t know the answer to that at this time.”

Despite technological improvements, Hodgson is skeptical about VR’s ability to pull people out of their own sense of reality and into a virtual space. He notes that the forces of both electromagnetism and gravity subtly affect our real world sense of who and what is close to us. “You spend your entire life building these ideas of what reality is,” he says. “It’s all these little minute things you don’t even think about. As adults, putting yourself completely in this immersive new experience can be very disorienting.”

Youth Movement
On the other hand, Hodgson and others agree that younger people are more comfortable with and excited by the interactive, multimedia game-like environments VR can deliver. Their sense of reality already includes a strong digital presence, and they are more comfortable training with this sort of technology.

“The average sailor is 20 years old,” says Nesselrode. “They were all born in 1995 and this is all they understand. This is how they learn. They’re very collaborative. If you want to attract the workforce, if you want to retain a workforce, you have to train them in a form that is not only native to that generation but extremely familiar.”

Real-world training experience is changing expectations and requirements. Customers realize users can and will use their imaginations to fill in “gaps” in the virtual experience.

“In the past, companies would say it has to be 100 percent perfect,” says Swan. Not anymore. VR designers now realize “you can do a lot of training with a lot less realistic graphics.”

That’s because the most important variable in VR is not the head mounted display, the haptic gloves or other gear, but in how best to design for users, says Eileen Smith, Director of E2i Creative Studio at the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Simulation and Training.

“Once we’re working in a computer, nothing happens unless it’s programmed to have the flexibility to let the human play with it,” Smith says. Even VR is ultimately about real people first and foremost, she explains. “That’s what it will always come down to.”

Related Articles

GDIT Recruitment 600×300
Tom Temin 250×250
GM 250×250
GovExec Newsletter 250×250
Cyber Resilience Workshop 250×250
Cyber Education, Research, and Training Symposium 250×250
December Breakfast 250×250

Upcoming Events

Vago 250×250
USNI News: 250×250
Nextgov Newsletter 250×250
GDIT Recruitment 250×250
NPR Morning Edition 250×250
Mobile Tech Summit 250×250
Winter Gala 250×250
AFCEA Bethesda’s Health IT Day 2018 250×250
To Do Agile Development, Contractors Should Be Agile, Too

To Do Agile Development, Contractors Should Be Agile, Too

Do it faster, make it better, be more efficient.

Every organization wants to improve. But knee deep in the day-to-day business of getting work done, few have the capacity to step back, survey the landscape and take time for more than incremental improvement.

Today however, more and more government agencies are turning to private sector models to achieve better results.

They’re employing agile development techniques to roll out new systems more quickly; setting up innovation centers to encourage and facilitate new ways of thinking; and seeking ways to change the procurement process to lower barriers to innovation. Each approach has proven its merit in practice.

Going Agile
Agile software development emphasizes quick iterative development cycles, in which developers roll out and then improve one version after another, learning as they go, rather than striving for perfection at the end of a single, long development cycle. Agile has been a mainstay in commercial industry for years, but it’s still a relatively new concept in government. To be successful, agile demands changes on all sides of the government acquisition process.

The American Council for Technology & Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC) hosted an annual Igniting Innovation competition last spring, in which 140 public-private entries vied for recognition. Among the eight finalists: InCadence Strategic Solutions, which employed agile methodologies to develop a mobile fingerprint ID system for the FBI, allowing field agents to capture fingerprints on Android smartphones and tablets and then “receive near-real time identity information on a suspect, wherever they have cellular service or WiFi access to the Internet, worldwide.”

Anthony Iasso“Agile brings us closer to the end user,” says Anthony Iasso, InCadence president. “That’s really the key: It’s about users. Oftentimes, we find there’s too many people between developers and end users. Adhering to agile allows us to quickly get to the functionality that the end user needs. It reduces the risk that a long-running program misses the mark.”

Adding engineers to the mix is also important, Iasso notes. “You have to pair agile with V1 engineers. They can go to an empty compiler and make version 1 of an application. If you let them learn as they code, then you get great capabilities,” he said.

Now the system is being marketed to state and local law enforcement, along with the military.

When the EPA decided it was finally time to replace paper forms with a digital system for evaluating firms seeking approval to remediate lead-based paint from aging buildings, developers at contractor CGI shaved months off the project by employing agile development. The whole thing was done in six months, a 20 to 30 percent versus a conventional waterfall approach.

That meant EPA needed to be actively involved, observes Linda F. Odorisio, a vice president at CGI. “If you want to do it and you want to do it right, you have to be right in there at the same table with your sleeves rolled up.”

Center for Agile Innovation
The state of North Carolina’s Innovation Center is essentially a laboratory for agile development. “Before we had the center, practically all projects appeared to be waterfall in nature,” says Eric Ellis, head of the Innovation Center. “We maybe had one or two trying to do agile methodology.”

But one goal for the new center was to conduct-proof-of-concept studies to test out new systems as they were being developed.

For example, a new application and renewal system for commercial fishing licenses was developed with agile techniques, saving the state $5 million in development costs.

“We would have gotten there [without agile], but it would taken us longer and cost us more money,” says state Chief Information Officer Keith Werner. “I had reservations that they wouldn’t have gotten the functionality they were looking for.”

Innovation centers are not without risk. Separate from the rest of an organization, they can be seen as disconnected or elitist, creative experts focused on innovating but disconnected from the real business of government.

“If you create an innovation group then they’re seen as the innovation group,” says Ellis. “The rest of the people, who aren’t in the innovation group, don’t feel compelled to innovate.”

To guard against that, the North Carolina Innovation Center, located on the first floor of the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources HQ, has no full-time resources of its own. The idea is to create an open environment that can change as needs change. Even its office space is flexible, easily reconfigured to encourage open-space interactions, so ideas can be demonstrated with little fuss.

Agile Contracting
Changing the software development process alone is not enough, says Michael Howell, senior director of the Institute for Innovation and Special Projects at ACT-IAC. The contracting piece also has to change.

“You can’t say I want to be agile, so here’s what I’m going to do: ‘I’m going to put a request in my 2018 budget and wait and see if I get any money,’” Howell says. It doesn’t work. They have to have flexibility to come up with the money. Then they have to have flexibility … to actually spend the money.”

Bob Gleason, director of the Division of Purchases and Supplies in the Virginia Department of General Services, says conventional procurement practices focus on known solutions and avoid unknowns, which add risk and uncertainty to programs.

Traditional requests for proposals define in specific detail exactly what is wanted, and suppliers respond in kind. “It gives you what it is you’re looking for,” Gleason says. “But there’s no incentive for any added value.”

It’s better, he said, to focus on the desired outcome, rather than on the detailed requirements intended to produce that same result, and to invite industry to offer innovative solutions the government customer may not have imagined on its own.

Contracts also must be flexible so vendors can improve their products or services over time, as they learn. Otherwise, vendors can be contractually locked into inefficient systems and approaches.

“You need to have a contract that’s not structured in fixed points in time, but is structured in a way that enables change over the life of the agreement,” Gleason says.

Managing Risk
“Part of the challenge we have as integrators is not just coming up with that new capability,” but also making sure that contracting officers’ technical advisors are well informed so they have the ability to compare very different proposals, says David Gagliano, chief technology officer for global solutions at General Dynamics Information Technology. Innovation inevitably involves risk, and contracting officials are trained to be risk-averse. Selection based on price is clear and straightforward in a way that value comparisons are not. So acquisition officers need skills to evaluate the benefits of different technical proposals and the confidence to take on reasonable amounts of risk.

“Two years ago, the government published the ‘TechFAR Handbook for Procuring Digital Services Using Agile Processes,’” Gagliano says. “It’s a pretty good starting point for contracting officers and their technical representatives who want to learn more about Best Practices in Agile procurement.”

“People don’t want government to fail at all,” says Darrell West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. “When government fails, it often ends up on the front page. The private sector model of failing nine times to have that initial success has been difficult to incorporate in the public sector.”

So to accept failure, the threshold must be low enough that risk can be tolerated. Pilot programs and related short-term, proof-of-concept contracts can lower risk by reducing the amount of money at stake. West contends they can “encourage innovation while protecting against large-scale failures.”

The Defense Department’s DIUX initiative, which brings together venture capital firms, small technology businesses and Pentagon technologists to accelerate the injection of new technologies into the department, exemplifies the approach. New concepts can be conceived and proven in a low-risk, small contract environment, independent of conventional contracting rules and schedules. Then, once the technology has matured to the point of a wider roll-out, bigger firms can compete for the right to manage that implementation.

In this case, government gets the best of both worlds: rapid-fire innovation from small firms unfettered by cumbersome acquisition rules followed by a managed implementation by experienced contractors steeped in the intricacies of doing business with large-scale government organizations.

Related Articles

GDIT Recruitment 600×300
Tom Temin 250×250
GM 250×250
GovExec Newsletter 250×250
Cyber Resilience Workshop 250×250
Cyber Education, Research, and Training Symposium 250×250
December Breakfast 250×250

Upcoming Events

Vago 250×250
USNI News: 250×250
Nextgov Newsletter 250×250
GDIT Recruitment 250×250
NPR Morning Edition 250×250
Mobile Tech Summit 250×250
Winter Gala 250×250
AFCEA Bethesda’s Health IT Day 2018 250×250
Think Small, Act Big: Two Approaches to Government & Military Innovation

Think Small, Act Big: Two Approaches to Government & Military Innovation

The U.S. Air Force and NASA fueled development of microchips. The Department of Energy’s National Laboratories developed algorithms that helped make 3D seismic imaging possible. The military created GPS navigation.

The U.S. government has helped fuel innovation in a range of industries and technologies for generations. Yet government leaders today increasingly talk about innovation in a different construct: Rather than moonshot technological achievements – massively ambitious, expensive and long term – they’re looking for better or more efficient ways to do manage government resources.

“Innovation is anything you do to change how you do something to make it faster, better, cheaper or easier,” says Michael Howell, senior director for the Institute for Innovation and Special Projects at the American Council for Technology & Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC). “The misperception about innovation is that it must equal invention.”

Innovation can occur on many levels. It can affect the way the government manages and shares its resources; the way it acquires knowledge or technology; or even the way it partners with others to do things better or faster or more efficiently. Sometimes the government leads the charge, as in the Commerce Department, where Secretary Penny Pritzker has sought to open up the agency’s voluminous stores of knowledge to both industry and the public at large.

In other instances, innovation comes about through a rich partnership between government, industry and academia, yielding not only technology but long-term collaboration in a variety of fields and regions. Such was the case with the General Dynamics EDGE Innovation Network, which began as a rapid-prototyping project to inject soldier-level technology into the Army’s battlefield network and evolved into a network of innovation centers spread across three countries and involving some 1,000 people from industry, academia and government.

Getting More Out of Data
The Commerce Department comprises a diverse group of agencies, including the Patent and Trademark Office, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Census Bureau, among many others. Each has a treasure trove of information of interest to all manner of businesses, academics and individuals. Pritzker’s vision is to make the department’s data more accessible and consumable by businesses and entrepreneurs, replacing static PDF reports with data bases that “actually allow the private sector to use our computing power or access data straight from APIs,” says Justin Antonipillai, counselor to the secretary and undersecretary for economic affairs at commerce.

“When you look around the Department of Commerce, you see that in executing our mission around the department, we organically are collecting an incredible amount of data in our various bureaus,” Antonipillai says. “It’s very valuable, not only inside the government to execute our missions, but could be very valuable for innovators, entrepreneurs, established companies and others.”

Commerce is a diverse agency, comprising the Patent and Trademark Office, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Census Bureau and many other agencies which also collect information in the process of doing their government work. But such information can have other purposes if only it can be tapped by others. The aim is to make the data more consumable by businesses and entrepreneurs, replacing PDF reports by “actually allowing the private sector to use our computing power or access data straight from APIs,” says Antonipillai.

Commerce launched the Commerce Data Service (CDS) with about 15 data scientists and developers, setting them free to launch services where citizens can study and engage with government data. One example: Making Income Data Accessible as-a- Service (MIDAAS), uses visualization tools to illustrate and contextualize wealth inequality data. “You can get a sense of what income actually looks like in the United States,” says Commerce Chief Data Scientist Jeff Chen.

Commerce also established the Commerce Data Usability Project, which opens up a variety of other data bases to the public and provides code and instructions to help create new uses for public data. The idea is that Commerce alone won’t come up with all the answers. But public collaboration, on the other hand, may open up insights that might never have been possible otherwise. .

“Once you’re able replicate you can start to make variations on it,” Chen says. “That’s really the key for innovation.”

Chen describes these efforts as “adventures into how data can be used, furnishing the public with a basic understanding of how to do data science or use certain data sets.”

Data analytics can also be a driver in other ways. For example, the International Trade Administration’s (ITA) promotional arm, the Commercial Foreign Service program, helps U.S. businesses operate abroad. ITA recently worked with the Commerce Data Service to develop a tool that helps ITA identify export potential U.S. businesses that might need government help. With the new tool, Antonipillai says, “You’re effectively generating lists of potential clients.”

Innovation Networks
New organizational structures are another way to innovate. By sharing challenges with outsiders, whether contractors, academics or other partners, organizations can introduce new approaches or ways of thinking and solve problems more closely.

The Army worked closely with contractor General Dynamics to develop the Army’s Land Warrior program, an early attempt to create a networked battlefield in which every soldier was a node on the network. Back then, recalls Army Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Peter Palmer, “We didn’t have all the capabilities. We didn’t have all the requirements documents.”

To help develop that futurist vision, General Dynamics formed a partnership. It created the EDGE Innovation Network in Scottsdale, Ariz., to work with small technology companies and academia to develop rugged, flexible, lightweight digital displays and other essential technologies for the project.

The combination allowed for rapid prototyping, accelerating the development process. “They created a collaborative environment between a big systems integrator and a program, pulling in the technologies from small industry, rapidly putting it together and sending it into the field,” says Palmer, who today directs the EDGE network.

What began as an effort to rapidly field new capabilities for warfighters evolved into expertise in improving the pace and quality of innovation. Ten years after launch, EDGE now comprises 15 Innovation Centers in a consortium of companies and researchers across the U.S., Canada and the U.K., with nearly 1,000 individuals in academia, industry and government.

“How do we provide innovation as a service to the lines of business to make them more successful?” Palmer asks rhetorically.

The answer, he says, lies in frequent “visioneering” sessions: collaborative sessions which allow members across the network to share knowledge and coordinate resources. It also involves making sure end users have a say in systems development.

“The first time an end user ever touches the solution is after it’s already built,” Palmer says. But by then most major decisions are made, and if the end user doesn’t like it, change orders will drive up the cost and slow down progress. “We try to get the end users early on in the process. It’s a lot cheaper to build it into the start than it is to reengineer something after you’ve already built it.”

All that pays off in time saved. EDGE’s streamlined collaboration model, Palmer says, “can do in days and weeks what it takes the government months and years to do.” That’s innovation.

Related Articles

GDIT Recruitment 600×300
Tom Temin 250×250
GM 250×250
GovExec Newsletter 250×250
Cyber Resilience Workshop 250×250
Cyber Education, Research, and Training Symposium 250×250
December Breakfast 250×250

Upcoming Events

Vago 250×250
USNI News: 250×250
Nextgov Newsletter 250×250
GDIT Recruitment 250×250
NPR Morning Edition 250×250
Mobile Tech Summit 250×250
Winter Gala 250×250
AFCEA Bethesda’s Health IT Day 2018 250×250