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Talking with the Champions: Gayle F. Gordon, Interior

December 3, 1998

by Sareen R. Gerson
Federal Communicators Network

Gayle Gordon designed and developed large statistical systems for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, then moved on to manage a nationwide network for the U. S. Geological Survey. She is now Assistant Director for Information Resources Management at Interior's Bureau of Land Management. But she also wears another hat. As chair of the Information Technology Innovation Fund, she is Vice President Al Gore's champion for innovative uses of information technology. The Fund allots seed money to encourage new uses for IT and improve its cost effectiveness and service delivery. The Fund committee favors projects that will have multi-agency or nation-wide impact.

Four years into the IT Innovation Fund program, Gordon says that most of the annual proposals have been for new uses of existing technology to do government's business better and improve services to the public. But along with that, some very exciting leading edge technology has gone from the planning boards to real time trials. For example, Gordon said, going down her growing list, there's ALERT.

Smart Squad Cars

A hand-held wireless computer is making a big difference to police officers in Alexandria VA, where the ALERT (Advanced Law Enforcement and Response Technology) system developed by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M is about to be piloted under one of the IT Innovation Fund grants. ALERT provides for vehicles with enhanced, advanced, and integrated mobile telecommunications. Using specially equipped police squad cars, Alexandria police officers can send and receive all kinds of digital information, including digital photographs and composite drawings.

Data communications are maintained between a hand-held wireless computer, a dashboard mounted touch screen that controls all the vehicle's emergency response functions -- lights, sirens, video cameras, Global Positioning System coordinates, radio, radar, and Computer-Aided Dispatch systems. (ALERT is a joint effort of the Department of Justice, Federal Highway Administration, the Office of Science and Technology, Department of Treasury, with support from the National Institute of Justice in the form of an integrated mobile telecommunications control network. The field testing is being conducted by the Alexandria, Virginia, Police Department and the International Associations of Chiefs of Police.)

Police can access information immediately and get more of it than ever before, identify individuals and their records, and, in accident situations, interface swiftly with medical and emergency response teams. Officers using the integrated system have reduced their data collection time by 20 to 50 percent. They can enter data electronically at an accident or crime scene: all the citation and accident forms are stored in the hand-held unit. Best of all, computer in hand, an officer doesn't need to turn his back on the scene to go back to his squad car to pick up responses to his queries for information. Complete and timely information, available on site and on the road, can mean the difference between public safety and public peril -- not to mention a greater return on taxpayer dollars invested in the criminal justice system.

Innovation Programs

The ALERT pilot is just one of a host of projects that Gayle Gordon is shepherding through to completion and, hopefully, self-sustaining results. From the annual call for proposals through complex planning processes, gatherings of multi-agency teams, coordinated pilots, tracking, encouraging, and weathering the usual ups and downs that accompany experimentation, it's a tall order, indeed. These ongoing efforts are going on all over the country, in different stages of development. Involving a wide range of federal programs, they all make use of high tech in one way or another to make things work a lot better than they ever have before -- and to do some things we've never thought possible.

It all started with the recommendation, in one of the September 1993 "accompanying reports" of the National Performance Review, to "create innovation funds." The federal budget process simply isn't flexible enough for investments in innovation -- for one thing, the timing is out of whack. Money never seems to be there when new ideas are ready to fly. But other ways of encouraging entrepreneurs had been found, in both government and private sector organizations ... working capital funds, innovation capital funds, matching funds for cross-agency projects.

Before the year was up, support for an IT Innovation Fund had been agreed upon. One percent of the annual income of the FTS2000 long distance telecommunications program (monies paid to the General Services Administration by federal agencies) would be dedicated to innovative IT federal agency projects. Thirteen projects were selected for funding in FY95, at a total of $5,015,000. By FY98, more than $6M became available. Though some projects affect only one or two federal or federal and local programs, some are crossing international lines.

International Trade Data System

Why should any company trying to export or import goods across our borders have to deal with an ocean of paperwork required by multiple Federal agencies, or spend $200 or more for each transaction?

That's the way it's been, for decades. Anyone with an interest in international trade has to deal with as many as 14 different processes, obtain approval from all the agencies involved, fill out duplicative forms. For a single export shipment, as many as 40 different paper documents may be required -- not just for Customs, but, for certain foreign trade transactions, the Fish and Wildlife Service, EPA, Transportation, and others. Not only has the private sector suffered this burden, federal agencies that need instantly accessible import/export data to fulfill their own missions also have to network each request.

Fact is, it's no longer good enough to "go with the flow" -- today's flourishing commerce demands staying ahead of it. "We need to stop delaying trucks at the Canadian border, or at Laredo," says Gordon. A Customs official should be able to evaluate a shipment before it arrives at the border, where most trucks could be waved on through.

When the International Trade Data System is up and running, that's exactly what will happen. ITDS is a very large project begun with Innovation Fund seed money and a project office at Treasury. Involved agencies have been working on the project for five years. An automated one-stop system, the ITDS will provide a single collection point for all the information required by more than 100 federal agencies for processing international trade. Instead of needing to fill out separate paper forms for immigration, customs and other agencies dealing with the driver, the truck and the cargo, one ITDS form will be filed on-line. Trade procedures, statistics, licensing, promotion, and standards for data elements and transmission will all be covered. The system will save time as well as money for importers, exporters, brokers, carriers and the feds themselves. And a single communications network would link all the law enforcement agencies concerned with importation of drugs, hazardous materials and other contraband -- an added benefit of substantial streamlining.

System completion is crucial for the simple reason that the 15-year old Automated Commercial System (ACS) now in use is on its last legs, according to Customs officials. Customs needs to update ACS and keep it running while they complete work on the ITDS and also implement ACE (the Automated Commercial Environment), but so far only a small fraction of the $1.2 billion to do this has been appropriated. At a public hearing held in Washington on November 5 to discuss the recently issued draft ITDS architecture/design report, private-sector and trade association officials praised the concept of one-stop online filing and processing. A big challenge right now, Gordon says, is how to bring all the federal agencies on board. And there is, of course, the huge funding question. The Innovation Fund seed money can go only so far, beyond planning, to get the system started. With core development and management costs that are expected to run to more than $250 million, the administration plans to request funds in its FY2000 budget proposal. Eventually, all the involved agencies will need to invest in the system.

One Stop for Grants

Another "one stop" system being funded is the Secure Electronic Grants System project being piloted by the project office at Transportation's Federal Highway Administration. Grant applications will be possible over the internet, and applicants will use one common application form, greatly simplifying the grant application process. Seven agencies worked with DOT in developing the pilot system in cooperation with ten grants customers; 15 agencies have been involved in testing conducted during the past year. The new system is paperless; low cost, and user friendly. Administration data entered a single time is reused for all grants. Encryption and digital signatures through the use of the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and smartcards ensure authentic transactions, and there's no need for applicants to load special software.

Geographic Cancer Patterns

Maps of geographical problem areas for cancer, heart disease, and stroke have been published for years in paper form. Cancer atlases particularly have been published in many countries as part of a considerable world-wide effort to help suggest possible explanations for geographical patterns of the disease. Hard copy volumes published by NIH in 1975, 1976, 1987, and 1990 have allowed researchers to explore the associations between varous environmental factors and the development of cancer among members of specific populations in defined areas during certain periods. Such information, expert oncology researchers tell us, is "incredibly useful -- and incredibly difficult to pull together."

Now, with the help of an IT Innovation Fund award, this important tool for medical research is coming to the world wide web. Based on data from the National Center for Health Statistics (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HHS), the Biostatistics Branch at the National Institutes of Health is preparing a website that will display 146 maps from their new Atlas of Cancer Mortality for black and white Americans during the period 1970-92.

The Internet atlas maps will be very specific -- for example, one map shows mortality rates by State Economic Area for breast cancer among white women between 1970 and 1992. Similar maps for more than 30 different kinds of cancer will be displayed by race and sex, and will be shown by county whenever possible. Downloadable files will facilitate printing the maps in color or black and white.

The hard copy maps have already provided many important leads for cancer research; their availability on the Internet can only help speed the process.

For more information on the more than 40 projects selected by the IT Innovation Fund since FY 1995, readers may want to visit the Government Information Technology Services Board website, at