Find a Need, Fill a Need: MITRE Consortium Makes Sense of Mobile ApplicationsOctober 2010
Topics: Wireless Communications, Systems Engineering, Collaborative Decision Making
Blackberries, iPhones, Droids, and other handheld mobile computing devices are here to stay. With approximately 1 billion cell phones and handheld computing tools in use globally, exponentially more computing applications, known as "apps," are available to users.
"There are approximately 220,000 apps you can use on Apple's iPhone alone," explains Jay Crossler, a principal software systems engineer at MITRE. Business apps, for example, offer tracking and data management tools; productivity apps facilitate meetings and presentations; and social media apps let people communicate easily and quickly. "The U.S. government, including several MITRE sponsors, wants to take advantage of these flexible tools that can support a range of mission areas," he says.
Apps have a lot of things going for them—they're innovative, they're affordable (in many cases, free), and they reduce dependencies on specific hardware or software.
"Apps are definitely new and hot, but determining actual needs for them can sometimes be a challenge," points out Robert McKee, who heads the Mobile Application Knowledge Environment (MAKE) initiative at MITRE. "We want to help build apps that add to collaboration and faster decision cycles by taking an enterprise view of them, rather than creating a specific app for a standalone mobile computing platform."
A Diverse Group with a Common Cause
MAKE is a consortium of engineers and developers at MITRE, culled from all of the corporation's centers, who share a passion for systems engineering, technology integration, and experimentation using mobile applications and computing platforms.
"The glue that holds our team together is the desire to produce enabling technologies and processes for our sponsors that we know they want and need," McKee says. "Everyone wants to be connected to bringing innovative capabilities to sponsors and the tactical user, whether you're talking about warfighters, fire and rescue workers, or border patrol personnel."
So far, the MAKE team has supported customers such as the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Army, building processes for developing apps. Through an innovative combination of research, experiments, and direct testing, MAKE seeks to identify key systems engineering approaches, standards, and deployment techniques that will smooth the way for government users to harness the flexible power of apps.
Demonstrating Apps at the Edge
The MAKE work is part of the corporation's internal research and development program. MITRE's research projects focus on advanced and emerging technologies that could dramatically improve mission performance or enable new operational concepts.
"The MAKE team develops common solutions that relate to acquisition, standards, interoperability, and related sponsor challenges," states Crossler, MAKE's chief engineer. "To do this, we're identifying and removing the technical barriers that can hinder deployment of new capabilities."
One such challenge is identifying a handheld device as a platform for developing innovative technologies—a daunting task, considering the plethora of choices. "We picked the market leader, Apple's iPhone, because it has an excellent development environment," McKee says. "But because MITRE manages several federally funded research and development centers [FFRDCs], it's part of our role to be aware of all smartphone devices."
McKee explains that the unofficial motto of the MAKE initiative is "find a need, fill a need." To that end, the researchers have developed a process for bringing together developers and subject matter experts from inside the corporation to exchange insights. "In a short period of time, we're able to derive the actual need for a specific government use," he says.
One such example of that process resulted in an iPhone app for counterinsurgency (COIN) intelligence collecting. Known as the "COIN Collector," this lightweight, mobile app devised for the U.S. Army and Marines takes advantage of commercial off-the-shelf technology to provide a missing capability needed in theater. An easy-to-use tool lets warfighters collect, organize, and share data about people, places, and events. Literally, with a keystroke, a commander in the field can move real-time map data onto his iPhone to instantly update friendly forces around him. The application has also been ported to work on the HTC Pro 2 Smartphone, using a Microsoft Windows operating system. Similarly, the team has applied a mobile ad-hoc network protocol to Google's Nexus smartphone, running the Android operating system, to improve range and performance.
"We were able to build the COIN Collector prototype in only two months," recalls Crossler. Part of the reason that the technology was developed so quickly was the cross-company collaboration—many of the technologies and knowledge about the process came from previous projects. "Lessons learned included everything from code to what colors work best on phone screens in direct sunlight."
With each new two-week prototype, the team increased efficiency and functionality by 10 to 20 percent. In field testing, the iPhones communicate with one another and a laptop that's unconnected to a central network. The next goal is to build more security into the iPhones and provide safe links to classified systems. The team provided COIN Collector to U.S. Marines in Afghanistan during the summer of 2010, and a smaller subset of the app is being used by U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Teams (military officers, diplomats, and experts dedicated to reconstruction in the region) to collect demographics. Meanwhile the Army is using 200 equipped smartphones in another large field exercise.
The spirit of collaboration that infuses MAKE has also been transmitted to the apps community at large. MITRE regularly brings together commercial companies and government organizations via the Government Mobile Application Group (GMAG), which fosters outreach and knowledge-sharing throughout industry and academia. "Four times per year, we hold a meeting that revolves around an operational theme, such as handheld-device security," says McKee.
These meetings explore technology trends and delve into best practices for deploying mobile apps for government work. With participation from institutions such as Georgia Tech and George Mason University, as well as Apple, Google, and The Aerospace Corporation, the shared goal is to brainstorm on how industry can meet government requirements while developing relevant, effective apps.
"This is another way FFRDCs can step in and make a difference," says Crossler. "We're working closely with both our government customers and industry, to make sure our ideas are transferable to operations."
In the meantime, the MITRE team continues to gather feedback from users, refine apps, and help customers get the lightweight, rapid technology that they can use in day-to-day operations.
—by Cheryl B. Scaparrotta