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DOD should rethink its approach to IoT

Over the past several years, the government has made significant progress is the adoption of connected devices, along with the software and security that helps make them run. According to a report by the contract and spending analysis firm Govini, the federal government spent nearly $9B in 2015 on technologies that cover the IoT landscape.

Unfortunately for smaller innovative vendors and the civilian sector of the federal government, much of the spending is consolidated within the Department of Defense and among a few large vendors. According to the same report, for devices and sensors alone, 88 percent of the spend was through the DOD and 68 percent of the contract dollars were awarded to only five vendors. It turns out that IoT spending is largely unbalanced.

Two questions stand out. First, while we are encouraged by the DOD's pace of adoption, how can the civilian agencies increase their participation in this innovation wave? Having the civilian government missing from the picture is a large missed opportunity. Additionally, how does the federal government -- including the DDD -- drive contract dollars to smaller, emerging tech companies? Given the rapid rate of change in IT, overlooking emerging technologies could be detrimental for government and for taxpayers.

Government IoT spending runs across three main focus areas. First are the sensors and devices that monitor, collect, transmit and process data. These are physical things that can be purpose-built for the IoT or things that are already ubiquitous, like a car or audio speaker. The government was likely using early devices and sensors before the term IoT was created to monitor weather, provide better physical security and keep track of assets.

Beyond the device itself is a combination of software applications that run on the device. This code allows devices to communicate, or extracts, transfers, processes and stores the data generated.

And finally, the security of the above is critical to the value that the network of devices and sensors provide. If the endpoints provide access to the network or the data cannot be kept secure both at rest and in transit, much of the value of IoT disappears at the organizational level. All three of these areas are ripe for innovation from emerging technologies and non-traditional vendors.

But what about the missions?

Some might argue that it naturally makes sense for the DOD to have significantly larger spend in IoT. After all, a large portion of the DOD workforce is in the field around the world. Soldiers stand to see huge gains in health and safety from IoT devices. Yet the opportunities for similar benefits in the civilian sector is vast.

For starters, agencies like NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Energy and the General Services Administration have core missions that support the adoption of these connected sensors and devices. Space and avionics, oceans and weather, energy consumption and smart buildings are perfect use cases.

Agencies like the Department of Transportation can use sensors to better understand how public transportation systems are responding to population growth in order to allocate federal funding more efficiently. The Department of Interior could leverage predictive maintenance to ensure vehicles in remote areas are operating when they have absolutely have to work. Practically every agency could benefit from leveraging connected devices.

How do civilian agencies get there?

There are a couple of distinct areas where the civilian sector could improve to speed adoption of these technologies. First, agencies must have robust Application Programming Interface (API) management practices that enable safe machine communication and data transfer. Second, networks and TCP/IP need to become a priority before widescale adoption occurs. And third, pilot programs can be hugely impactful in understanding of how devices and software can be used. Let's explore each of these areas.

APIs are IoT's best friend

Without APIs, IoT would just be called A Collection of Things. It is what gives a device that collects data the ability to send that data remotely over the internet, or a sensor that provides motion capture the ability to turn on a camera and broadcast via the internet. They are powerful tools, and API management is critical to the broad adoption of IoT in government.

Without a well functioning API management program, the developer access to critical systems, the proper functioning of devices and the overall security of the network can be compromised. Agencies need to see APIs and API management as a key part of their mission. Without it, pushing into IoT is a very risky endeavor that can compromise security and privacy.

There are resources out there for agencies around APIs, most specifically this site by 18F. And where there is a gap in the market, private companies step in. There are hundreds of companies and products that can help an agency get on the right path with APIs if they are interested in expanding their adoption of IoT.

'When' not 'If': the government is running out of IP addresses

Some estimates project that hundreds of millions of new devices are connected each year. This proliferation of internet users and devices has eaten up IPv4 and made the transition in government to IPv6 absolutely necessary if government wants to bring more devices and sensors into agency networks.

The transition across most agencies began in 2012, but as with many unfunded mandates, there is still much work to do. Agencies need to begin to make this transition sooner rather later as more and more devices come online.

Current network configurations and architectures are insufficient. Recently, the use of older network communication technologies like long-range radio or low-bandwidth wide area network have improved the security of battery-operated device that may need to be on location for longer periods of time. As agencies transition to the next generation of telecommunications contracts with Network Services 2020 and the Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions contract, it's necessary to consider that networks must accommodate far more connected devices than employees with laptops and mobile phones.

Pilots programs can be a great avenue for emerging tech

A number of agencies are leveraging creative techniques to better understand the utility and total cost of ownership of IoT emerging technology products to the mission. DOD's Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) recently awarded a contract for predictive maintenance for aircraft, the Department of Homeland Security's Silicon Valley Innovation Program held an open call for wearables for working canines, and the GSA and Energy Department have supported a proving-ground program for green building technologies for over six years.

While DOD and DHS are leveraging their Other Transaction Authority, GSA is leveraging a gift authority that has existed for 60 years. Both of these authorities, which exist at other agencies as well, were not created solely for emerging technology. Other agencies should consider where IoT can support the mission of the agency and build mechanisms to evaluate newer technologies. Agencies should also look to leverage authorities to the extent allowable.

Accelerating IoT for government

As an accelerator for IT firms seeking to enter the federal market, Dcode sees countless examples of the innovation that's available if agencies are able to look beyond their traditional vendors and contracts. (Disclosure: Dcode is about to begin working with a cohort of IoT and mobile-focused companies.)

As we look to bring emerging tech to the government, we encourage agencies to review their existing infrastructures and process to ensure they are ready to adopt these types of technologies. The future of connected devices is here and working together we can build a smarter, more connected government.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to Defense Systems.

About the Author

Andrew McMahon is Dcode's director of strategic partnerships. A political appointee in the Obama administration, McMahon worked at the Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration to help build 18F, the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program and GSA’s Technology Transformation Service.

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