2 ways to improve collaboration

Customized search tools and internal portals help bridge cross-agency gaps

The government produces oceans of data on a daily basis, from reports and scientific documents to financial data. And much of it must be shared across departments and agencies and often made available to the public. But sharing isn't enough. As federal organizations increasingly consult one another for expertise, the need for functional platforms that foster collaboration becomes vital.

Collaboration software covers a range of tools, from applications that manage the production of reports and documents to file and metadata tagging systems that enable users from a variety of agencies to access and modify files and data.

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Such information-sharing tools are widely used across the federal government, but they are used primarily to support efforts at a specific agency or department. Sharing information across organizations or, in some cases, semi-autonomous entities in large bureaus can present logistical and record-sharing problems.

The U.S. Geological Survey and Energy Department are among a variety of government organizations that use collaborative software tools to broaden the reach of their data sharing.

NEXT: How USGS does it

Ensuring that information is fully shared across a number of government and public organizations can be onerous. That is one of the responsibilities of USGS’ Center for Biological Informatics. As the lead geospatial and information technology group at USGS’ biological group, the center manages data and information on topics such as species, land change and standards and shares that information with other federal agencies, nonprofits and universities.

Much of that work focuses on managing data throughout the life cycle of a project, said Mike Frame, the center’s deputy director. The center also helps set standards for the tools used to collect such data. Because of the multiagency nature of the work, collaboration is a necessity. The center uses several different tools, including enterprise search tools by Vivisimo, to manage data collaboration.

For about 18 years, the center has supported teams that work on national and regional data management issues, such as bird conservation. Frame said the center uses collaboration tools to parse data in different views to support a variety of groups. For example, the states must report data for species of concern, which are species that might need protection, and find ways to integrate and visualize that information. Frame said sharing that information is a significant problem because each state’s species of concern differ from others’.

“One state may worry about it, and it may not be a huge priority for another one,” he said. “How can you help facilitate that process?”

The center requires a high-level integration of data, such as a pure dataset or distilled report summary. Frame said Vivismo helps the center manage and integrate that data. But despite promoting training and best practices, he added, “people still don’t like to do metadata, and they don’t like to do standards. They want to do their own thing.” 

The resulting flow of unstructured data presents a problem. Frame said the information can exist in the form of Web page summaries of a project linked to a dataset. Vivisimo helps the agency bridge those gaps in a better manner than it had in the past. “Integrated search has always been a huge part of what we do,” he said.

The center makes it a priority to simplify data integration and ensure that users can retrieve information and use it. Two years ago, USGS began working with agencies and nonprofit groups to move their data into Vivisimo for sharing. Frame said much of the data that the groups collect is not publicly available or is structured for use by members of the scientific community.

The Environmental Protection Agency, USGS and the National Science Foundation contribute data through Vivisimo. In addition, a global effort is under way to make specimen and habitat information available.

“Visualizing 120 million records for a map is pretty difficult,” he said. The goal is to produce summary records for a specialized search environment and, for example, then let other users link to that with information about a specific species.

The center also has developed a thesaurus that helps users discover and present related information. Users can search the thesaurus for a broad term, look at related terms and find a hierarchy of information. The thesaurus is a collaborative effort of several federal agencies and has been under way for more than a decade.

As an example, the term “invasive species” has multiple meanings, with some groups preferring terms such as “alien species” or “nonnative species.” For years, there was disagreement about the terminology. But Frame considers such arguments fruitless. “If a local group happens to refer to it as this, it’s our responsibility on the back end to bridge that [information] and let users choose whatever they’re more comfortable with because they’re more willing to share that way and contribute,” he said.

The complexity of user needs presents another problem. The Vivisimo tool helps USGS present a high-level view by allowing users to access data and put it into other formats, such as spreadsheets, Frame said. The center is working on releasing a geospatial component that places all results on a map and lets users take that information for further analysis.

Frame said he believes the days of presenting data in a results list, such as they are doing in Vivisimo or Google, will expire in several years. “Users want to navigate information more visually,” he said. For example, site visitors interested in specific information, such as oil spill effects on Louisiana wetlands, can drill through information more actively. They will visually start at a top level and use sliders and containers to drill down, and the biggest challenge will be visually presenting information to users.

“In this program, ultimately, everything we do is publicly available,” he said.

NEXT: How the Energy Department does it

Connecting the Enterprise

As the federal organization responsible for monitoring and managing the nation’s nuclear stockpile, the Energy Department maintains facilities and laboratories across the country. But many of those centers, such as the Sandia, Los Alamos and Oak Ridge national laboratories, are semi-autonomous mixes of federally managed and contractor-run facilities.

The disparate, geographically scattered mix of facilities has presented DOE with a bookkeeping problem, said Lajos Grof-Tisza, manager of the department’s data warehouse, business intelligence effort and iPortal program.

DOE’s iPortal launched in 2008 with the goal of promoting collaboration across the department. However, it was initially light on collaboration features. That deficiency changed in 2009 with the launch of the Oracle WebCenter suite and Oracle Portal Integration and Collaboration applications. In May 2010, the portal launched additional features through WebCenter. 

Grof-Tisza said Web conferencing is one of the key features that DOE uses. He said the department had traditional video/Web conferencing rooms that required scheduling for use, an arrangement that did not lend itself to ad hoc conferencing. The Oracle Web applications put conferencing capabilities into users' hands.

For example, DOE conducts audit reports through the Office of the Chief Financial Officer. Grof-Tisza said that because the department is decentralized, many sites such as the national laboratories manage many of their own finances. The department used to hold twice-yearly financial conferences that brought representatives from all of its sites together to review financial statements. By moving to collaboration technology, DOE was able to reduce that travel requirement and eliminate the need for the conferences because the meetings can be run remotely.

Grof-Tisza said the online meetings allow DOE's labs to share financial data, with control given to a field site, thus allowing its representatives to display financial records and discuss information in real time. “That helped to not only reduce the travel cost but to also reduce the turnaround time for some of the reviews on these statements and reports,” he said.

However, trying to facilitate collaborative discussions with tools as simple as instant messaging isn't always easy. The average age of DOE's staff members is 56, he said, and initially, there was some pushback on the use of instant messaging. But since its deployment, there has been a steady growth in IM use.

“Based on the initial feedback, we thought that the adoption rate would be slower, but quite a bit of our user population has been using the instant messaging features that we offer as well,” he said.

DOE is also making use of GroupSpaces software within the Oracle suite. The shared drives originally established for collaboration were not providing the desired levels of interaction with information and documents. Clusters of users from across the department now using GroupSpaces instead. One reason for the application’s popularity is that it lets users create and manage their own collaboration spaces without the need for IT support, Grof-Tisza said.

As the iPortal’s project manager, Grof-Tisza said his goal is to provide the group spaces and other collaboration features as a service. “I don’t actually get in the middle of managing everyone’s group space or pieces there,” he said. “It’s really to provide the service so users across the [department] can leverage those features on their own.”

Another stumbling block to internal collaboration is developing effective directory lists. When the deputy chief financial officer arrived and asked for a list to contact all the financial management staff members across the department, Grof-Tisza discovered that such a list did not exist. “It turned out to be a major effort just to get together a distribution list to communicate with the various field sites and the stakeholders,” he said. This situation convinced the deputy CFO that the department had to emphasize collaboration to break down communication barriers.

Adoption rates for collaboration features have steadily increased. The initial goal for the portal project was to get approximately 800 DOE users involved in corporate systems, corporate information and other enterprise resource planning issues. But the number of users grew without promotion from headquarters.

A lot of the growth is through word-of-mouth and viral adoption across the department, Grof-Tisza said. There are now about 3,000 users throughout DOE. Of those users, slightly more than 2,000 actively use the portal and its tools on a monthly basis. He said this measurement looks at users who use the site and its tools more than once a month. The department's management hopes to increase the user base to about 6,000 users. After that, Grof-Tisza said, the plan is to ramp up to 10,000-15,000 users and ultimately to 100,000 users.

The number of monthly core users is also increasing. These users come in multiple times per month to check their profiles, send instant messages, work in a group space or participate in Web conferences. Grof-Tisza said that is typical ERP-type use, where people might run a report once a month. The increased use is more focused on core job processes and collaboration with others across the department.

For the near future, DOE is focusing on several areas. One is to take advantage of the investments made in the department’s ERP systems. The goal is to put more work into users’ hands. Grof-Tisza said that will allow users to look at and share work on the portal. For example, when managers log in to the portal, they could see their work pieces on the portal. If they have to certify or work on a document, it will be on the portal.

“We want to see more of those pieces, more of our daily work efforts, directly on the portal,” he said.

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