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By Brian Robinson

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'The Guardian' of government data

On the heels of the United Kingdom's launch of its own version of Data.gov comes a new site developed by The Guardian newspaper that provides access to online government data sites from around the world.

According to this editorial, The Guardian has been pushing for the UK to set up its own site for four years. Whether that means the paper was instrumental in getting the new site up is questionable, but at least it means the newspaper was ready when the site went live.

The Guardian has some highflying ideas of what the revelation of all this data could mean:

“Without the printed word there would have been no informed electorate, no demand for accountability from our leaders and, indeed, no democracy at all. Open data will surely revive it and, in time, could transform it too.”

I guess we’ll see about that. W. David Stephenson, a consultant to current federal CIO Vivek Kundra while the latter was the CIO for the city of Washington, lays out how he thinks this could happen in an op-ed piece in the Huffington Post.

There’s no denying that opening up government data is an inexorable trend, so it will be at the least fascinating to see how it plays out, and The Guardian's site will be a good resource for that. After all, the Brits may have a better idea of this stuff right now, as FCW’s own story seems to suggest.

Posted on Jan 25, 2010 at 9:03 AM0 comments


DARPA satellite program seeks ‘billions and billions’ of inputs

OK, billions is my exaggeration (and with apologies to the late, great Carl Sagan), but you’d be forgiven for thinking that is the intention of the latest RFI from the boffins at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

They are looking for suggestions for new algorithms that can be used to control individual satellites that would act in unison to perform certain jobs. The initial target is experimental satellites that would operate inside the International Space Station.

Here’s the key graph:

“Specifically, DARPA seeks an open-innovation approach to the development of algorithms for the control of the Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage, and Reorient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) that operate inside the International Space Station. Ideally, participation in the innovation process would be open to groups numbering in the hundreds, to thousands, to possibly millions of people worldwide.”

That is a BIG open-source commitment. Typically, you would expect thousands of people to contribute on such a project, but millions? Worldwide? DARPA has titled its RFI “Crowd Sourcing Algorithms for Spacecraft Cluster Control,” but I’d say that’s taking even the new age term a little far.

However, DARPA wouldn’t be DARPA if it didn’t stretch the limits. It’s also looking to spread this over as wide an age-range as possible, apparently even down to schoolkids, as part of a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics program component.

As for as the military goal of this, DARPA has long been involved in the possible use of swarm technology to use hosts of miniature satellites. It’s latest program is titled the Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft United by Information Exchange (System F6), for which it let the latest contract in December.

And that’s probably enough of the mad scientist -- and acronym-heavy -- stuff for a while.

Posted on Jan 21, 2010 at 9:03 AM0 comments


U.S. first responder communications still a mess

Among all of the stories about Twitter and Facebook affecting the response to the Haiti earthquake, here’s a sobering reminder of how basic interoperable communications among first responders in the U.S. is still a myth, a problem that should have been sorted out a long time ago.

In an op-ed in The Hill retired Navy Rear Adm. Jamie Barnett points out that if a similar earthquake were to strike the United States, we’d be in a parlous situation. Decades after the fact was pointed out, and despite all of the public breast-beating that’s been spent on the issue, the U.S. is still without a public safety broadband wireless network.

And that’s even after the tragedies of the 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina glaringly illustrated the disastrous consequences of the lack of such communications.

Representatives of America’s public safety officials recently visited Congress to push for more spectrum that could be used to create a national public safety network. Once again, however, they are up against commercial interests who are lobbying for public spectrum to be allocated to them to relieve them of the squeeze on their networks.

Barnett know whereof he speaks, by the way: He’s the Federal Communications Commission’s chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. The FCC has been conducting a series of broad-ranging hearings on how to improve U.S. broadband communications.

Posted on Jan 21, 2010 at 9:03 AM1 comments


Green tech: NASA brings space tech down to earth

NASA is getting into the green tech business, it seems, by using software designed for such things as the International Space Station and Mars Rover missions to control indoor energy systems.

Discover.com asked Steve Zornetzer, associate center director at NASA Ames, what was going on, and he explained how the stuff used to optimize outer space environments can just as well be used to track more mundane earth-bound energy sinks such as temperature, electricity, water and lights.

It can be used to reduce the energy demands on solar panels when the sun don’t shine so much, for example, or to calculate what the air conditioning demands of a room might be at any given time of the day and control the temperature accordingly.

A building that NASA is calling Sustainability Base (of course) will be the test site for all of this. Zornetzer expects it to be “the greenest, if not among the greenest, government buildings.”

Given that all of government is under orders to cut back on energy use, them’s fighting words. I doubt that the Defense or Energy departments, to name just a few, will stand idly by and let that boast stand!

Posted on Jan 20, 2010 at 9:03 AM0 comments


The FBI, a Spanish lawmaker and bin Laden

 The FBI leaves a Spanish minister of parliament wondering why his picture was incorporated into a wanted poster of an international terrorist.

From the “Just what the @#!!*&# were they thinking?” department comes this story about how the FBI, lacking good sources for some of the uber-terrorist’s facial features, decided those of a Spanish member of parliament would be good enough.

According to the Associated Press, the FBI put together a wanted poster of Osama bin Laden based on age-progressed images from those they had of him at an earlier date. Except they were missing what someone thought were good examples of such things as hair and facial wrinkles.

A picture of Gaspar Llamazares, former head of Spain’s United Left coalition, was available on the Internet, so they used his features. But they forgot to ask Llamazares. Imagine the shock when the Spanish MP was informed, and there part of he was (part of him, anyway), pictured as one of the world’s most wanted villains.

It would be laughable except that, as Llamazares himself pointed out, those are exactly the kinds of things that authorities use in biometric recognition systems. Llamazares could be facing a torrid time of questions and searches at airports and other travel points.

A Daily Telegraph story says the FBI claims “cutting edge” technology is used for the pics, which are displayed on the State Department’s Rewards for Justice Web site. But now you have to wonder.

The question we have to ask is whether this was a one-off on the part of the FBI, or was it standard practice? If so, how many other innocent people's features are out there?

Personally, most of my Internet pics come off looking like mug shots anyway. I don’t need the FBI to emphasize the point.

Posted on Jan 19, 2010 at 9:03 AM1 comments


DOE assembles team to tackle cybersecurity threats to power grid

Speaking of the Obama Administration’s cybersecurity efforts, the Energy Department is doing its bit by splashing out more than $8 million to fund something called the National Energy Sector Cyber Organization.

Apparently, this will be the country’s lead body in identifying the risks faced by the U.S. power grid, and will be tasked with coming up with ideas on how to secure emerging technologies such as the smart grid, which will use fiendishly clever IT to tie together everyone and everything that uses electric power.

The ultimate goal is to make power distribution more efficient, and therefore cheaper. Presumably that means I’ll at some point see a cut in my utility bill, though I’m not holding my breath.

If you want to see how this new public/private outfit fits with the broader strategy, check out DOE’s Roadmap to Secure Control Systems in the Energy Sector.

The DOE plans to issue the funding announcement sometime around March, so sharpen your pencils.

(P.S.: Hat tip to Layer 8.)

Posted on Jan 15, 2010 at 9:03 AM0 comments


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