Army refines program to spur app development

Speed-to-market is a concept familiar to most technology developers. It’s a notion that U.S. Army chief information officer Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson hoped to embrace when he announced the introduction last September of a new software innovation contest called Apps for the Army.

But as Sorenson discovered, moving quickly is never easy in the Army. What began as an attempt to replicate a model for rapid software development, popularized by Apps for Democracy co-creator Peter Corbett, soon encountered a barrage of legal questions and operational issues that delayed the program’s launch until this week.

Sorenson acknowledged the delays in a briefing March 3. “We had some grand expectations of what we were trying to achieve,” Sorenson said. “As we got into the details, we found [various plans] conflicted with some legal and other issues.”

As a result, the program underwent a series of revisions, making it more like other military technology challenges. The program now limits to 100 the number of teams that can apply and spells out in greater detail how awards will be made. Applicants must be employed by the Army and receive approval from their supervisors to participate. That should lead to a stronger talent pool and ensure participants get the time they need to work on their projects, Sorenson said.

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The A4A program, as Army officials have dubbed it, will pay out $30,000 in cash rewards for Web and mobile applications across eight categories, including applications for data delivery, warfighting, mission support, local-aware mobile, training and education, morale and recreation, and personnel and career management.

Marvin Wages, program manager for A4A, said "making Apps for the Army a challenge with cash awards provides participants additional incentive to create an application. It also creates more interest" in the competition, he added.

Sorenson, however, is betting on a bigger prize: that the Army will mirror the experience the District of Columbia demonstrated two years ago when its Office of the Chief Technology Officer — then led by Vivek Kundra -- offered $50,000 in cash prizes to citizens to develop applications that would make D.C. data more useful to the public.

Corbett, chief executive of iStrategyLab, which helped create the D.C. Apps for Democracy project, said that contest produced 47 iPhone, Facebook and Web applications valued at $2.3 million in combined savings to the city. And, as importantly, it reduced the time it might have taken to build and deploy those applications from two years to 30 days.

Sorenson said those kinds of returns helped get funding for the A4A program. But the real payoff for the Army would be in seeing applications “that might in many cases save soldier’s lives, which is priceless.”

The genesis of the A4A program traces back to frustrations Sorenson saw firsthand in the battlefield. He recalled the experiences of two National Guard soldiers, Staff Sgt. Carlos Castillo and Sgt. Paul Lin of the 1st Battalion, 160th Infantry Regiment. The soldiers knew there was a better way to manage records. They proposed developing a software application to streamline the process. As Sorenson tells it, it took six months to secure a development server for them. After it arrived and the men completed their work, they realized the software had to stay on that server, preventing it from being deployed and enhanced elsewhere.

“It dawned on me,” Sorenson said, “we have a lot of capable soldiers in the Army, but we’ve not given them the opportunity or the platform” to develop the kind of applications the military could use to improve operations.

Now, by using the military’s Rapid Access Computing Environment and, a collaborative software repository, both managed by the Defense Information Systems Agency, soldiers and Army civilians can easily access a development sandbox and make use of virtual Windows and Linux servers. They’ll also have access to mobile application emulation software for Android, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile operating systems, and to SharePoint, ASPNet and LAMP, Sorenson said. Participants can also meet online using a social media space set up on the military’s milBook site.

So far, 16 teams have applied for the A4A competition, which runs from March 1 to May 15, Sorenson said. This is just the first step, he added, in the Army’s efforts to accelerate software development and deployments. “It’s not the end state.”

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of Defense Systems from January 2009 to August 2010. He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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