State gears up for SMART messaging

'Perhaps most critically, the homeland security people can get access to the consular visa information.'

'E-Diplomacy Office director James H. Holmes

Dan Gross

State Department officials expect to award a contract soon for the State Messaging and Archive Retrieval Toolset, which will replace the department's half-century-old cabling system.

The department issued the SMART request for proposals June 3 and set a deadline of Sept. 2 to receive submissions, according to the consulting firm Input of Reston, Va. State officials expect to award the contract early in fiscal 2004, said ambassador James H. Holmes, director of the department E-Diplomacy Office.

'That project is to change the World War II-era cabling system we have used since 1944 or 1945 to a Web-based system,' Holmes said. 'We are hopeful we can begin deployment in early 2005. The total cost over three years is on the order of $160 million.'

Holmes said the State Department produces about a million cables, or official messages, annually. 'They are well archived but not easily retrievable,' he said. 'The department also produces about 60 million e-mails a year'and only a small fraction of those are archived and retrieved.'

Holmes said the department will use SMART to comply with legal requirements for retention of State's messages, and to comply with its business plan as well. The department's 2004 performance plan calls for it to implement 'a modern messaging/archiving/knowledge management system.'

'It is silly to rely on e-mails and not to be able to draw on that knowledge base,' Holmes said. 'We need to build the databases, pipelines and software associated with the new messaging system.'

Four levels of messages

Holmes said SMART will transmit four levels of department messages:
  • Formal cables for official department notices

  • Informal cables, which are classified or unclassified messages such as drafts of an official notice

  • E-mail messages not in cable format that are enterprise business

  • Personal e-mail.

'The latter one we will not attempt to archive or retrieve,' Holmes said. 'It is not our intent to stifle informal communications.'

He said the department's existing records for classified communications are much more complete than those for 'sensitive but unclassified' traffic.

For the SMART system, State seeks to develop a 'very robust search engine and data mining' toolset, Holmes said.

Another recent development at State has been the activation of the link between the department's OpenNet Plus system and the intelligence community's Open Source Information System extranet, Holmes said. State and the intelligence community agreed to link the two sensitive but unclassified systems in November 2002. The link went live in early July, after officials resolved issues concerning information security, privacy and procedures for cooperating with other agencies, Holmes said.

Now, users of State's 43,000 OpenNet Plus workstations worldwide can access information from about 30 other agencies via the OSIS link. The department is pushing out data via the network as well, including:
  • Unclassified cable

  • A combined e-mail directory for State and the Agency for International Development

  • Access to the Interagency Consolidated Administrative Support System, which helps agencies manage the costs of supporting overseas activities.

The CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency are among the users of OSIS, Holmes said. 'There is one critical one that is missing, and that is the Defense Department,' he said.

U.S. embassies around the world have begun posting their extranets through the OSIS network, Holmes said, including those in London; Tokyo; La Paz, Bolivia; Bucharest, Romania; and other foreign capitals.

'We have developed a very simple tool for creation and maintenance of a Web site and for posting daily [embassy] reporting'it is called Portal X,' Holmes said. 'Perhaps most critically, the homeland security people can get access to consular visa information.'

Knowledge sharing

State IT specialists also plan to implement a new strategy for knowledge sharing within the department. State has developed a step-by-step knowledge-sharing plan after a year of work. Holmes said the plan focuses on:
  • Making department systems less stovepiped

  • Making improvements to the department's search engine and enterprise portal

  • Building improved directories

  • Developing procedures that reward knowledge sharing and recruit employees adept at knowledge sharing.

Holmes said State's IT staff also is working to increase the department's use of wireless technology. He conceded that the U.S. military is using wireless systems that are 'half a decade ahead' of State, but that the department will have to find comparable systems that are less expensive.

'There are some people today who are very enthusiastic about highly capable notebook' computers, Holmes said. 'The technical solutions seem to find a way of being realized. The cultural solutions require methods that are less sexy.'

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