CyberOSINT banner

US Government Working to Deliver Delightful Contracting Experiences

November 20, 2015

Short honk: I read a number of government-related documents each day. I came across this gem “The Current Future of 18F Marketplaces.” I marvel at the “current future” phrase. A Heisenberg moment.

Here is the passage I highlighted in government green:

Our ability to develop, manage, and scale high-quality marketplaces — and to create delightful contracting experiences — requires proper tooling. Currently, we’re in the process of developing an electronic form for agencies to initiate and execute interagency agreements with 18F so they can work with 18F more efficiently.

I like the “delightful contracting experiences.” Wow. Delightful. The other point is the reference to an “electronic form.” I recall that one agency invested several hundred million and three years of effort to put immigration forms online. I think the system delivered one electronic form with another 60 waiting to get the zap treatment.

I love that “delightful contracting experience.” When I worked at Booz, Allen & Hamilton, the delight came from winning the bid and getting a bonus.

I suppose delight can be delivered in different ways. Contracting was not on my short list.

Stephen E Arnold, November 20, 2015

ACA Application Process Still Vulnerable to Fraudulent Documents

November 20, 2015

The post on Slashdot titled Affordable Care Act Exchanges Fail to Detect Counterfeit Documentation relates the ongoing issue of document verification within the Affordable Care Act (ACA) process. The Government Accountability Office) GAO submitted fake applications to test the controls at the state and federal level for application and enrollment in the ACA. The article states,

“Ten fictitious applicants were created to test whether verification steps including validating an applicant’s Social Security number, verifying citizenship, and verifying household income were completed properly. In order to test these controls, GAO’s test applications provided fraudulent documentation: “For each of the 10 undercover applications where we obtained qualified health-plan coverage, the respective marketplace directed that our applicants submit supplementary documentation we provided counterfeit follow-up documentation, such as fictitious Social Security cards with impossible Social Security numbers, for all 10…”

The GAO report itself mentions that eight of the ten fakes were failed at first, but later accepted. It shows that among the various ways that the fake applications were fraudulent included not only “impossible” Social Security Numbers, but also duplicate enrollments, and lack of employer-sponsored coverage. Ultimately, the report concludes that the ACA is still “vulnerable.” Granted, this is why the GOA conducted the audit of the system, to catch issues. The article provides no details on what new controls and fixes are being implemented.
Chelsea Kerwin, November 20, 2015

Sponsored by, publisher of the CyberOSINT monograph

Billing and Meetings Remain Easier Than Usable Digital Systems

November 11, 2015

I have bumped against digital initiatives in government and industry a number of times. The experience and understanding I gained were indispensible. Do you remember the “paperless office”? The person attributed with creating this nifty bit of jargon was, if memory serves me, Harvey Poppel. I worked with the fellow who coined this term. He also built a piano. He became an investment wizard.

Later I met a person deeply involved with reducing paperwork in the US government. The fellow, an authoritative individual, ran an advertising and marketing company in Manhattan. I recall that he was proud of his work on implementing strategies to reduce dead tree paper in the US government. I am not sure what happened to him or his initiative. I know that he went on to name a new basketball arena, selecting a word in use as the name of a popular vitamin pill.

Then a mutual acquaintance explained the efforts of an expert who wrote a book about Federal digitalization. I enjoyed his anecdotes. I was, at the time, working as an advisor to a government unit involved in digital activities, but the outfit ran on paper. Without paper, the Lotus Notes system could not be relied upon to make the emails and information about the project available. The fix? Print the stuff on paper. The idea was to go digital, but the information highway was built on laser printer paper.

I thought about these interactions when I read “A Decade into a Project to Digitize U.S. Immigration Forms, Just 1 is Online.” (If the link is dead, please, contact the dead tree publisher, not me.)

According the article:

Heaving under mountains of paperwork, the government has spent more than $1 billion trying to replace its antiquated approach to managing immigration with a system of digitized records, online applications and a full suite of nearly 100 electronic forms. A decade in, all that officials have to show for the effort is a single form that’s now available for online applications and a single type of fee that immigrants pay electronically. The 94 other forms can be filed only with paper.

I am not surprised. The article uses the word “mismanaged” to describe the process upon which the development wheels would turn.

The write up included a quote to note:

“You’re going on 11 years into this project, they only have one form, and we’re still a paper-based agency,’’ said Kenneth Palinkas, former president of the union that represents employees at the immigration agency. “It’s a huge albatross around our necks.”

What’s interesting is that those involved seem to be trying very hard to implement a process which puts data in a database, displays information online, and reduces the need for paper, the stuff from dead trees.

The article suggests that one vendor (IBM) was involved in the process:

IBM had as many as 500 people at one time working on the project. But the company and agency clashed. Agency officials, for their part, held IBM responsible for much of the subsequent failure, documents show.

The company’s initial approach proved especially controversial. Known as “Waterfall,” this approach involved developing the system in relatively long, cascading phases, resulting in a years-long wait for a final product. Current and former federal officials acknowledged in interviews that this method of carrying out IT projects was considered outdated by 2008.

Several observations are warranted, but these are unlikely to be particularly life affirming:

  1. The management process is usually not focused on delivering a functioning system. The management process is designed to permit billing and cause meetings. The actual work appears to be cut off from these administrative targets of having something to do and sending invoices for services rendered.
  2. Like other interesting government projects such as the upgrading of the IRS or the air traffic control system, figuring out what to do and how to do it are sufficiently complex that everyone involved dives into details, political considerations, and briefings. Nothing much comes from these activities, but they constitute “work” so day to day, week to week, month to month, and year to year process becomes its own goal. The new system remains an abstraction.
  3. No one working on a government project, including government professionals and contractors, has responsibility to deliver a solution. Projects become a collection of fixes, which are often demonstrations of a small scale function. The idea that a comprehensive system will actually deliver a function results in software quite similar to the famous service.

I am tempted to mention other US government initiatives. I won’t. Shift to the United Kingdom. That country has been working on its National Health Service systems for many years. How similar have been the initiatives to improve usability, functionality, and various reductions. These have ranged from cost reduction to waiting time reduction.  The project is not that different from US government efforts.

What’s the fix?

Let me point out that digitization, computerization, and other Latinate nominatives are fated to remain in a state of incompletion. How can one finish when when the process, not the result, is the single most important objective.

I heard that some units of Angela Merkel’s government are now using traditional typewriters. Ah, progress.

Stephen E Arnold, November 11, 2015

IRS: Searching for Computers

November 1, 2015

I read “IRS Hasn’t Finished Doing Windows Upgrades Because It Can’t Find a Bunch of Its Computers.” Who knows if it is true. I find the write up darned amusing. The notion that the IRS cannot locate some of its computers is a Jack Benny-type knee slapper.

Here’s the passage I highlighted in tax delinquent red, a delightful hue:

The IRS has spent $128 million in its attempt to upgrade all computers away from Windows XP and all servers away from Windows Server 2003. But when the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) conducted the audit between December 2014 and June 2015, about half of the agency’s servers and more than 1,000 computers still had not been upgraded. “At the conclusion of our fieldwork, the IRS had not accounted for the location or migration status of approximately 1,300 workstations and upgraded only about one-half of its Windows servers,” the report explains. It’s a diplomatic way of saying that a bunch of computers were missing, whether they were hiding in plain sight or in a black market parts exchange somewhere.

At some point, one wonders if the folks can find the time to assist the IRS in its technical quest.

The write up also included this fascinating statement:

Using legacy operating systems is a problem because it makes systems more vulnerable to hacks. And since the IRS stores valuable information about millions of people it’s especially important for the agency. Don’t forget that the agency disclosed a big data breach in May [2015]. All of this is making the Navy’s disastrous upgrade process look a little better. Or maybe it’s just making every agency look worse.

I did not know that using a legacy operating system might be a problem. Insight time.

Stephen E Arnold, November 1, 2015

Algorithmic Transparency: Are You Concerned Too?

October 24, 2015

I read “FTC Chair Edith Ramirez Outlines Concerns about Big Data.” The write up contained a stunning quote to note; to wit:

The agency is concerned about “algorithmic transparency,” she said, and how “algorithms can be manipulated.”

Wong asked about connected health devices. “We are very concerned about this,” Ramirez said, adding: There is this flow of health information that is happening outside of the regulatory space. We want to make sure that very sensitive information is being protected.

Interesting. Will vendors reveal what their numerical recipes are doing? A better question: If the vendors revealed their algorithms, would most people know what the algorithms were doing? Asking for transparency and understanding are, in my opinion, two different activities.

Stephen E Arnold, October 24, 2015

US General Services Administration: Changes Ahead

October 17, 2015

I read “David Shive: GSA Ramps Up IT Consolidation through Acquisition Process Updates, Analytics Adoption.” Then I read “Mary Davie: GSA Updates Federal Acquistion Gateway Platform.” Ah, memories of FAR. You are familiar with the rich, informative compendium known as Federal Acquisition Regulation.

The write ups indicate that changes are afoot at the GSA, where is busy inventing point-and-click Web site services and cloud computing.

According to the Shive write up:

“We are looking at our data management strategies so we can effectively coalesce that data, and putting good predictive analytics on top of that so that we can make good decisions about things that are happening, and predicting things that are going to happen and drive down costs for things like maintenance of infrastructure,” Shive told the station [part of ExecutiveGov maybe?] in an interview.

Efficiency in government is welcomed by those who have the opportunity to interact with the professionals at their stations. One innovation is interesting:

GSA is also working to implement a statement of work library for multiple procurement categories and the a click-and-pay service on the site.

No word about the search system, and not much information about who pays whom and for what.

Stephen E Arnold, October 17, 2015

The State Department Delves into Social Media

October 13, 2015

People and companies that want to increase a form of communication between people create social media platforms.  Facebook was invented to take advantage of the digital real-time environment to keep people in contact and form a web of contacts.  Twitter was founded for a more quick and instantaneous form of communication based on short one hundred forty character blurbs.  Instagram shares pictures and Pinterest connects ideas via pictures and related topics.  Using analytics, the social media companies and other organizations collect data on users and use that information to sell products and services as well as understanding the types of users on each platform.

Social media contains a variety of data that can benefit not only private companies, but the government agencies as well.  According to GCN, the “State Starts Development On Social Media And Analytics Platform” to collaborate and contribute in real-time to schedule and publish across many social media platforms and it will also be mobile-enabled.  The platform will also be used to track analytics on social media:

“For analytics, the system will analyze sentiment, track trending social media topics, aggregate location and demographic information, rank of top multimedia content, identify influencers on social media and produce automated and customizable reports.”

The platform will support twenty users and track thirty million mentions each year.  The purpose behind the social media and analytics platform is still vague, but the federal government has proven to be behind in understanding and development of modern technology.  This appears to be a step forward to upgrade itself, so it does not get left behind.  But a social media platform that analyzes data should have been implemented years ago at the start of this big data phenomenon.

Whitney Grace, October 13, 2015
Sponsored by, publisher of the CyberOSINT monograph


Agriculturized Content Marketing

October 7, 2015

When you think of paid content, eggs are probably not the first product you envision. However, the Guardian reveals, “US-Appointed Egg Lobby Paid Food Blogs and Targeted Chef to Crush Vegan Startup.” Apparently, the American Egg Board’s (AEB’s) efforts began when Silicon  Valley startup Hampton Creek began gaining traction with their egg alternative. Fearing encroachment on its territory, the AEB is reported to have paid food bloggers up to $2500 to insert their talking points into recipes and other content; to have slammed publications that wrote positive articles about Hampton Creek; to have attempted to recruit celebrities to push real eggs; and, my favorite, to have purchased Google ads that returned AEB-sponsored content when users searched for Hampton Creek or company founder Josh Tetrick.

There is a slight problem: these tactics appear to violate U.S. Department of Agriculture rules. Reporter Sam Thielman tells us:

“The scale of the campaign – dubbed ‘Beyond Eggs’ after Hampton Creek’s original company name – shows the lengths to which a federally-appointed, industry-funded marketing group will go to squash a relatively small Silicon Valley startup, from enlisting a high-powered public relations firm to buying off unwitting bloggers. One leading public health attorney, asked to review the internal communications, said the egg marketing group was in breach of a US department of agriculture (USDA) regulation that specifically prohibited ‘any advertising (including press releases) deemed disparaging to another commodity’. Tetrick called for the USDA to clamp down on the food lobby, as thousands of petitioners called on the White House to investigate the USDA itself for ‘deceptive endorsements’. ‘This is a product that has been around for a very long time,’ the Hampton Creek founder said. ‘They are not used to competition and they don’t know how to deal with it’.”

That’s one way to look at it. It seems that Tetrick’s company, however, is not beyond reproach. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently told them to rename their main product, “Just Mayo,” because mayonnaise, by definition, contains eggs. There also seem to be some issues with their methods and work environment, according to former employees. See the article for more details on this culinary rivalry.

Cynthia Murrell, October 7, 2015

Sponsored by, publisher of the CyberOSINT monograph

Visual Analytics Makes Anyone a Data Expert

October 5, 2015

Humans are sight-based creatures.  When faced with a chunk of text or a series of sequential pictures, they will more likely scan the pictures for information than read.  With the big data revolution, one of the hardest problems analytics platforms have dealt with is how to best present data for users to implement.  Visual analytics is the key, but one visual analytics is not the same as another.   DCInno explains that one data visual company stands out from the rest in the article, “How The Reston Startup Makes Everyone A Big Data Expert.”

Zoomdata likes to think of itself as the one visual data companies that gives its clients a one up over others and it goes about it in layman’s terms.

“Zoomdata has been offering businesses and organizations a way to see data in ways more useful than a spreadsheet since it was founded in 2012. Its software offers real-time and historical explorations of data streams, integrating multiple sources into a cohesive whole. This makes the analytics far more accessible than they are in raw form, and allows a layperson to better understand what the numbers are saying without needing a degree in mathematics or statistics.”

Zoomdata offers a very interactive platform and is described to be the only kind on the market.  Their clients range from government agencies, such as the Library of Congress, and private companies.  Zoomdata does not want to be pigeonholed as a government analytics startup.  Their visual data platform can be used in any industry and by anyone with the goal of visual data analytics for the masses.  Zoomdata has grown tremendously, tripled its staff, and raised $22.2 million in fundraising.

Now let us sit back and see how their software is implemented in various industries.  I wonder if they could make a visual analytics graphic novel?
Whitney Grace, October 5, 2015
Sponsored by, publisher of the CyberOSINT monograph

Google Faces Sanctions over Refusal to Embrace Right to Be Forgotten Ruling

October 2, 2015

The article on Reuters titled France Rejects Google Appeal on Cleaning Up Search Results Globally explores the ramifications of Europe’s recently passed Right to be Forgotten law. The law stipulates that search engines be compelled by requests to remove information. Google has made some attempts to yield to the law, granting 40% of the 320,000 requests to remove incorrect, irrelevant, or controversial information, but only on the European version of its sites. The article delves into the current state of affairs,

“The French authority, the CNIL, in June ordered Google to de-list on request search results appearing under a person’s name from all its websites, including The company refused in July and requested that the CNIL abandon its efforts, which the regulator officially refused to do on Monday…France is the first European country to open a legal process to punish Google for not applying the right to be forgotten globally.”

Google countered that while the company was happy to meet the French and European standards in Europe, they did not see how the European law could be globally enforced. This refusal will almost certainly be met with fines and sanctions, but that may be the least of Alphabet Google’s troubles considering its ongoing disapproval by Europe.
Chelsea Kerwin, October 02, 2015

Sponsored by, publisher of the CyberOSINT monograph


Next Page »