Widespread telework ushered in a new suite of applications and workflows. Videoconferencing and chatting apps went from zero to hero, as employees leaned heavily on these to continue their jobs uninterrupted when out of office. And online portals that had never seen the blue light of internet spontaneously popped up on agency websites.
To say the learning curve has been steep for government agencies might be an understatement. Off-premises, digitally driven work has been an open-world experiment for many, discovering new features and learning as they go.
For some time, other agencies have navigated the murky and sometimes choppy waters of cloud – or computing services carried over the internet. Oftentimes what makes these waters murky is multicloud environments, where more than one service is used, and what makes them choppy is hybrid environments, where legacy on-premise environments and new-wave cloud environments are both in play.
“We have all kinds of multifaceted different challenges and data is really at the heart of all of those,” Brian Merrick, Director of Cloud Programs at the State Department, said at GovLoop’s virtual summit on Tuesday.
With more than 100,000 core users, 34 decision-making bureaus and 50 U.S. locations, the State Department covers a lot of ground – and murky water. Managing disparate data environments is a challenge, Merrick said, but they’ve improved over time.
One key lesson learned has been communicating with stakeholders, such as the data office and procurement teams. Multicloud environments can be difficult to track data across, and procurement teams and terms in government notoriously struggle with the cloud-based subscription model.
But by coordinating with data offices, Merrick has been able to streamline sharing. And studying cloud models with procurement teams has helped prevent vendor lock-in and rationalize applications so that they’re not running online when they don’t need to.
“The real key is how do we get the most productivity out of a set of employees and resources,” said Garrett Clark, Principal Storage and Hyperconverged Sales Specialist at Red Hat, which works closesly with government agencies.
For the U.S. Census Bureau, productivity doesn’t only come from employees, but from the many people it serves. Researchers, academics, politicians and economists use Census reports to draw important conclusions and discover society-altering findings. Seeing how economic and population surveys – and their datasets – interact, for example, can produce a more powerful finding than either standalone survey.
The Census Bureau has embraced a hybrid cloud model for its data collection and aggregation efforts. By Sep. 30, it will deliver redistricting data to all states, which will use that information to draw voting districts.
“We want to make sure that our data products are accessible, that they’re easy to use and they answer a wide range of data needs,” said Zack Schwartz, Division Chief of the IT Service Management Office for the U.S. Census Bureau.
Being able to see across multiple levels and clouds is paramount in the modern era. The Census Bureau, for example, attempts to deidentify its findings and obscure details so that hyperpowered computers cannot run analyses to match results across surveys for individuals or businesses. Essentially, the bureau needs to release all of its data and make intersectional analysis possible, without ever letting multivariate formulas match sensitive information to unique identifiers.
That level of visibility and policy is a tough one to balance.
“That specific layer is really important,” said Nasheb Ismaily, Senior Solutions Engineer for Cloudera, a major cloud service provider to government.
Fortunately, not every aspect of data exchange in the cloud is so complex. Working with various teams, Merrick has noticed one of the most important things agencies can do is identify a problem set.
Applying solutions directly to a problem prevents excessive cost and guarantees value. And it helps ease high-powered technology into an organization, so that employees can get used to it without being overwhelmed.
“There are some key pieces to think about, and they’re not all technical,” Merrick said.
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