US govt agencies eye data conversion, open source

Both text-to-data migration and non-proprietary software featured in discussions at Gartner's annual government IT conference

The future of US government IT systems will include a big focus on converting old data into electronic form, two federal government IT leaders say.

The US government’s intelligence agencies are looking into technology that can quickly convert typewritten and handwritten text into electronic data, says Greg Pepus, senior director of federal outreach at In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm funded by US agencies such as the CIA. Intelligence agents need technology that can quickly convert notes handwritten in Arabic or in symbols to electronic data that can be easily shared and put into a database, he says.

“The problem is the vast majority of data in the world isn’t in databases,” Pepus noted during a panel discussion about the future of US government IT needs at the recent Gartner Government Conference held in Washington DC.

In addition, In-Q-Tel is looking for better search technologies that allow wide-ranging searches across multiple databases in one interface, Pepus says. The goal is to produce targeted searches that allow intelligence analysts to spend less time searching for data and more time analysing it, he says.

The US Social Security Administration (SSA) is looking for the some of the same technology as In-Q-Tel, but for different reasons, says Kimberlee Mitchel, senior technical advisor for the agency. The SSA has massive amounts of data still in “unstructured” formats, such as paper, and the agency wants to move it to electronic form, she says.

The move to electronic form will allow the agency to better track and serve US citizens who are eligible for social security retirement benefits, she says. In the future, US citizens shouldn’t have to file paperwork to receive cheques, she says.

“We envision a future where we gather data almost transparently,” she says. “When you’re eligible for social security, the cheque shows up in your [bank] account.”

The SSA is also looking at handwriting recognition software, and new ways to ensure data integrity, as data moves from paper to electronic form and is shared between US agencies, Mitchel says. “Your data is only as good as where it comes from.”

While the federal government looks into software than can convert paper data into electronic form, some state governments see open-source software as the wave of the future, says Dennis Wells, deputy CIO for the Office of Information Services at the Oregon Department of Human Resources.

Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski has funded open-source projects and identified open-source development as an economic driver for the state, Wells says. Oregon is also working with other states to push open-source technology as a way to generate the myriad of reports that states need to file with the federal government, he says.

States are looking at ways to enc-ourage software vendors to offer open-source packages that could be tailored to each state’s needs, instead of each state buying its own software to generate reports to the federal government, he says.

“We think there’s a smarter way to do it.”

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