FAA researchers coast into Web collaboration
FAA's Ron Simmons favors collaboration software for widely dispersed users because it is efficient and easy to learn.
Ron Simmons became a believer in Internet collaboration in 1998 while looking for a way to track research funded by the Federal Aviation Administration's human factors office.
'We had 98 projects going' at institutions in New Zealand, Europe and the University of Illinois, said Simmons, the office's knowledge officer. 'I was trying to avoid custom software development.' The human factors office studies physical and physiological effects of aviation on pilots and air traffic controllers.
Simmons settled on eRoom digital workplace software from eRoom Technology Inc. of Cambridge, Mass.
'We found we had six different groups doing research on human fatigue,' he said. 'Until we put it in eRoom, there was no way of knowing.'
Overlapping research programs are not necessarily bad, he said, but without proper management they waste effort. 'You're constantly reinventing even simple things,' he said.
Simmons became an evangelist for eRoom, promoting its use in the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System program office in late 2000.
'I was trying to introduce the concept of knowledge management,' he said.
STARS program manager Alan Feinberg said he was not looking for knowledge management per se, but 'just wanted to make things easier on everybody. We were having a heck of a lot of meetings. We had embarrassing situations where we were faxing 50-page documents while 25 people were in a room waiting for a meeting to begin.'
Early versions of STARS are running, he said, at El Paso International Airport in Texas and Hancock International Airport in Syracuse, N.Y.
The first full version, FS-1, which lacks some interface features planned for the final version, is in use at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., and McGuire Air Force Base, N.J.
The El Paso and Syracuse airports will upgrade soon to FS-1, and, Feinberg said, work is under way on FS-2. A national release of FS-2 will begin late this year, and implementation at nearly 200 air traffic control centers will continue through 2008. Raytheon Co. is the STARS prime contractor. TRW Inc. provides on-site support for the fielded versions.
The STARS program office uses eRoom primarily as a document repository. In virtual meeting rooms that Simmons set up on the agency's eRoom server, documents are immediately available to users wherever they are. 'I don't have to worry about whether the e-mail has gone through,' Feinberg said.
Simmons called e-mail 'sporadically quick' for document review and approval between Raytheon headquarters in Boston and the STARS program office. He said it used to take about four hours 'on a good day. With eRoom it's instantaneous.'
The product's biggest plus is a short learning period, both men said.
'In about 15 minutes I was using it at a very useful level,' Feinberg said.
ERoom runs under Microsoft Windows NT or Win 2000 with Microsoft Internet Information Server. Users can view, track, edit and manage documents and other files by browser, regardless of format.
'We are file-agnostic,' said John Sheehan, eRoom's director of technical solutions.
Users also can share applications, do white-boarding and have text chats. Documents are routed through a workflow manager that alerts users when material is awaiting approval.
Sheehan said the tool requires a minimum of attention from the IT staff beyond installing the server software, assigning a Web address and naming a facility administrator, who sets up the virtual rooms, designates users and creates access profiles.Server's in the DMZ
Access to each eRoom is by password. Assigned users must have read and write permissions for each file or file type. All eRoom traffic comes through server ports 80 or 443, and the server can be behind a firewall for additional security.
Th eRoom server runs in a so-called demilitarized zone at FAA's Washington headquarters'behind the firewall but not connected to the LAN.
'If we were all working in the same building, we would have a LAN,' Simmons said, but the wide distribution of users makes Web access more practical. Hosting it in a DMZ makes it secure.
ERoom also gets around agency restrictions on size of e-mail attachments, and it provides a central repository. Simmons estimated that FAA has saved more than $46,000 on slide presentations, for example, by having an archive of material that is easy to search and reuse.