MITRE Fosters Agency Collaboration in the Brave New World of Technology

March 2017
Topics: Communications Technology (General), Computing Methodologies, Mobile Technologies, Cloud Computing, Government Agency Operations
When it comes to new technology, one agency may not have all the answers. Discussions among multiple agencies, industry, and academia can help set the best way ahead for implementing new technology. ATARC and MITRE help bring those parties together.
MITRE's Justin Brunelle writing on a whiteboard.

Adopting new technology can be scary--especially for government agencies. There are budget issues. Cross-agency collaboration issues. Even "Is this the right thing for the American public at this time?" issues.

Working through people-related changes can be as difficult as dealing with the technology itself. This is true whether you're talking about the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, big data, or other growing areas.

"These technologies are a major change in the way things happen," says Justin Brunelle, a lead researcher at MITRE. "They're a significant deviation from the norm. Harnessing the benefits of something like cloud computing requires working through the discomfort of losing some control of the data. There can be cultural challenges independent of the technical ones."

Fortunately, there's a group that brings different agencies and others together to hash out these issues.

Taking a Deep Dive into Government IT Challenges

Tom Suder founded the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center (ATARC) in 2012 to serve as a forum for U.S. government, academia, and industry to address emerging technology challenges. ATARC stepped in to fill the void left when the General Services Administration stopped hosting conferences on mobile computing.

ATARC hosted its first mobile computing conference in 2013. It was well received. But Suder wanted to go beyond speeches and panel discussions. He wanted a deep dive on the government's most difficult challenges. He had attended quarterly sessions that MITRE hosted on mobile computing and reached out to us.

"MITRE brings a lot of perspective across federal agencies," says Suder, who is also president of Mobilegov, a government mobility lifecycle integrator. "Our government audience likes MITRE because it combines this perspective with neutrality, so it knows that they're looking out for its best interests." 

This led to MITRE coordinating a set of collaboration sessions for ATARC's Federal Mobile Computing Summit. Following the sessions, we distilled the input of several hundred attendees into a white paper. The model proved successful, and government officials asked for similar sessions on cloud computing, Suder says. Sessions on other topics, including big data analytics and agile development, followed.

Growth in attendance is another testimonial to the value of the sessions. The initial summits included four breakout sessions, Suder says. Now they've expanded to feature seven or eight.

"Having a MITRE person lead is huge," Suder adds.  "When government officials hear about MITRE's role, it puts them at ease. During the sessions, they're more likely to really open up, rather than give canned answers."

Open Discussion the Foundation of ATARC Summits

There are eight summits per year. Each topic area has a separate MITRE chair. The recurring topics are mobile computing, cloud computing, big data analytics, agile development, and IoT.  Attendees include senior government and industry officials. There are also well-known professors and graduate students conducting cutting edge research from Carnegie Mellon, University of Central Florida, George Mason, Virginia Tech, Auburn, and other universities.

Every summit attracts several hundred participants, each with something different to offer. The sessions begin with panel discussions that are open to journalists. But the afternoon working groups that MITRE hosts are closed to the media to help foster open discussion.

"As we listen to government representatives talk about their pain points, we may have solutions that we can provide," says Brunelle, who coordinates MITRE's work with ATARC and chairs the cloud sessions. "The sessions also give them a chance to hear from peers at other government agencies they otherwise might not meet."

MITRE researchers author white papers based on the discussions with recommendations for how government officials can solve their primary challenges. These whitepapers are available on ATARC's website (as well as MITRE's website) so that the recommendations can be more widely shared, along with other relevant documents.

Addressing Cultural Challenges with Technology Adoption

Anxiety surrounding adoption of cloud computing is one area where MITRE's sessions helped the government work through a cultural challenge, Suder says. In some cases, moving to the cloud renders data centers obsolete, threatening government jobs.

The collaboration sessions helped government officials identify opportunities to retrain and reallocate data center staff to address other priorities. The sessions also helped government agencies develop methods to improve the morale of staff working on the existing technology during the transition.

Mobile technology is another area where the collaboration sessions have helped address cultural issues, says Patrick Benito, who chairs the mobile sessions. (An associate department head at MITRE, Benito helped establish the initial relationship with ATARC.) For example, using app stores can lead to a completely different approach than typical government acquisition cycles, he says. And mobile app developers can incorporate user feedback at a much faster rate.

The sessions helped government acquisition officials become comfortable with ceding some of their traditional control and processes. Benito adds that participants now recognize that this does not threaten their jobs, but actually makes them more efficient and more effective at meeting their users' needs.

The Benefits of Attending ATARC Summits

Government agencies aren't the only beneficiaries of the summits. MITRE staff have drawn from the discussions to apply to their own work on government programs. Industry representatives gain a deeper understanding of the government's challenges and make connections with their government and academic counterparts. And academics learn more about what the government is grappling with, so they can better tailor their research and curricula to match.

ATARC also augments the discussions with hands-on opportunities for experimentation. The group is setting up cloud-based innovation labs where industry participants can host new services.

"By letting government officials experiment with new capabilities in a safe environment, they can better understand and evaluate the emerging technology," Brunelle says. "As MITRE advises our government sponsors, we may recommend that they experiment in these labs to get a better sense of how different options meet their needs."

Interested in getting involved with ATARC? Contact Tom Suder at tsuder@atarc.org.

—by Jeremy Singer

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