Home office of an Interior Department teleworker

3 agencies whose telework programs showed 'tele-vision'

The Mobile Work Exchange, which promotes sharing about innovations in setting up telework systems and programs between government and commercial organizations, recently announced the recipients of the group's 2013 "Tele-Vision" Awards.

The MWE awards recognize telework projects and programs that show  productivity gains, cost savings and information security practices.

Here are three winning projects that showed agency telework programs can save time and money:

1. "The Largest Leap In Telework/Mobility" award went to the Telework Program of the Department of the Interior Inspector General’s Office. I

In three years, from 2009 to 2012, the agency's IG office went from near-zero participation in telework to 98 percent. That might have made an impact on the employee satisfaction and productivity at the office, because in the 2012 Best Places to Work survey, the DOI was ranked eighth among agencies on work-life balance. And to show its ability to handle any amount of remote access in an emergency, the office even had a mandated telework day, according to the MWE.

2. The winner of MWE's state and local government award went to the bring your own device program set up by the Virginia Information Technologies Agency.

In less than five years, the number of state employees who telework at least one day a week went from a meager 44 percent to an impressive 89 percent, according to MWE. One possible reason for the surge in participation was that VITA offered a stipend to employees who wanted to use their mobile device for work in lieu of a government-furnished device,  which both appealed to employees and saved the state money.

3. Security is always a huge concern when employees need remote access. The MWE recognized that by giving its "Excellence in Enabling a Secure Mobile Workforce" award to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.

Through the first half of fiscal year 2013, 58 percent of initial appeals to MSPB and 65 percent of case pleadings were filed electronically through MSPB’s e-Appeal online filing portal, MWE noted.

MSPB is also piloting a “My Cases” app, which lets employees review and annotate case files on tablet devices from any location. And with such a high percentage of the Board’s business being done electronically, MSPB earned recognition for keeping everything secure, according to MWE.

Telework is an increasingly critical aspect of any government IT department, and it is important to see productive work in this area get the recognition it deserves.

Posted by Greg Crowe on May 06, 2013 at 9:39 AM2 comments

Soldiers in a field using communication tools

DARPA looks way outside the box for mobile on-the-fly networks

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is known for its novel approaches to how computers can be used to serve the military. And it has been doing just that for the last 55 years.

The agency’s latest idea is a doozy, even by DARPA standards: A large scale mobile network for the field “unencumbered by Internet Protocols.”

DARPA this week issued a call for ideas for creating a mobile ad-hoc network (MANET) that would, by a wide margin, surpass anything yet achieved. MANET devices configure their interconnectivity on their own, without the oversight of some sort of server-based controller. They would have to be able to switch nodes the fly as their locations change, so each must effectively be its own router.

To say this would be tricky to put into practice on a large scale would be an incredible understatement. But this is what DARPA is looking for and it could totally change how the military communicates in the field.

The agency is asking for ideas that come from a completely clean slate, unhampered by the baggage that comes with current Internet Protocols. Current practical applications of MANETs have broken down after scaling to only 50 nodes or so and the Internet’s incremental improvements haven’t increased that number significantly. DARPA envisions needing a lot more nodes than that to be effective and is looking for “truly revolutionary ideas,” according to the announcement.

“A MANET of a thousand nodes could support an entire battalion without the need for manual network setup, management and maintenance that comes from ‘switchboard’-era communications,” said Mark Rich, DARPA program manager said in the announcement. “This could provide more troops with robust services such as real-time video imagery, enhanced situational awareness and other services that we have not yet imagined.”

DARPA will hold a symposium Aug. 7-8 in Arlington, Va., to hear presentations on the subject. Attendees will watch the presentations and then break into working groups to discuss the ideas.

The agency is working on battlefield innovations on other fronts as well. In 2012, it announced a plan for a different wireless initiative, the Fixed Wireless at a Distance program to develop cell tower-class performance without the fixed infrastructure. DARPA also recently developed a tiny chip, called a timing and inertial measurement unit that can provide precise location and navigation information when GPS signals are unavailable.

Posted by Greg Crowe on May 02, 2013 at 11:21 AM0 comments

Sumat Dagar model for Braille phone

World's first Braille smart phone will soon be a reality

Several years ago, the FOSE trade show hosted a panel on accessibility in government IT. One question in particular stuck with me to this day: A blind gentleman asked the panelist from Research In Motion (now BlackBerry) when they would put out a BlackBerry for the blind. Of course, back then no one had a good answer for him, even though the question got a near-standing-ovation from the audience.

Well, that question may soon be answered. A developer in India by the name of Sumat Dagar has developed the world’s first Braille smart phone. "This product is based on an innovative 'touch screen' which is capable of elevating and depressing the contents it receives to transform them into 'touchable' patterns," Dagar told the Times of India. He developed this specifically because he saw that technology tended to serve the mainstream and ignore anyone with special needs.

The phone uses Smart Memory Alloy technology to make small pins rise out of the body of the device in patterns, so they could form Braille letters or any other necessary shape. The alloy will form into one of these two states (up or down) depending upon what electrical impulses it gets.

Braille seems to be gradually — very gradually — working its way into the mobile device world. Early in 2012, researchers at Georgia Tech produced a prototype app that uses Braille for touch-screen devices, although the researchers envision that as an app for any smart phone user who wants to text without looking at the screen. And a university student in England has designed a DrawBraille Mobile Phone, but it remains in the concept stage.

Improvements in touch-screen technology, such as the Smart Mobile Alloy in Dagar’s phone or the microfluidics screens from Tactus Technology, could make smart phones for the blind more viable.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments requires federal agencies to ensure that the electronics and IT products they buy are accessible. With regard to smart phones, it has to date focused on apps. But with mobile devices becoming common tools for employees and citizens, the option for phones that accommodate the visually impaired could become a necessity.

Posted by Greg Crowe on May 01, 2013 at 9:39 AM3 comments