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FCW : April 30, 2016
Enterprise IT Big data with a purpose He also highlighted CBP’s Automated Commercial Environ- ment (ACE), which will provide a “single-window” electronic portal for rail, sea and truck cargo manifests and serve as the primary system for the trade community to report informa- tion on imports and exports. That’s not a small job. CBP administered more than $1.5 trillion worth of U.S. exported goods and more than $2.4 trillion in imports in fiscal 2015 as more than 26.3 million imported cargo containers passed through the nation’s ports of entry. ACE has been developed and deployed in an incremental fashion over more than a decade and is set for full imple- mentation by the end of the year. That modular process has allowed the project to continue despite delays for software development and other issues. “The IT world is in transition,” U.S. Citizenship and Immi- gration Services CIO Mark Schwartz told FCW. “Data used to be transactional. Now, more and more, a piece of data is analyzed many, many times. We’ve moved from transactional to data as an asset.” USCIS is responsible for processing visa and naturaliza- tion petitions, asylum and refugee applications, and other data-intensive decisions related to immigration cases. To help the agency invent new ways to use IT to achieve its mission, USCIS is seeking both a CTO and a deputy CIO who are DevOps- and agile-savvy. “After years of data being locked in silos, we have been creating a [central] data warehouse, with reporting, analyt- ics, ad hoc queries and statistical analysis,” Schwartz said, adding that the shared resource will allow USCIS to execute its duties in ways that weren’t possible in the past. For instance, the agency’s Electronic Immigration Sys- tem (ELIS) will eventually consolidate all the agency’s data systems — but not all at once and not through big, rigidly defined projects. The work must be tackled in smaller, itera- tive steps and harness agile development techniques and the cloud to be effective, he said. And through it all, big data must have a purpose. “I’m not interested in putting data together for its own sake,” he added. Rejecting ‘too big to fail’ The shift to faster, more efficient development techniques can involve some pain, however. Last fall, the Washington Post ran a story about how, despite being 10 years into developing ELIS, USCIS had suc- ceeded in making only a handful of the hundreds of immi- gration forms and other operations available electronically. The Government Accountability Office also criticized the program for its poor performance. After the Washington Post story was published, however, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson took the unusual step of issuing a statement in response. He contended that the system was far from the cautionary tale of mishandled federal IT that the article made it out to be. Johnson said USCIS recognized that the initial system wasn’t good enough as it was being developed, and the agency ditched the contractor working on the project and turned to agile techniques to create something much better. “The result of these changes was a program and system that [have] little in common with the initial outdated attempt that was launched in 2006, beyond a shared name,” Johnson said in his November 2015 statement. He added that the new system had processed 500,000 filings — or 16 percent of all immigration processing — and was on track to increase that total by 41 percent by the end of 2016. In other words, DHS and USCIS officials realized they had a problem and solved it in a timely, iterative fashion rather than deeming it “too big to fail” and sticking with the status quo. The willingness to reject tradition and embrace agile devel- opment has been taking hold at DHS without much fanfare. Its roots are particularly evident in the agency’s acquisition efforts — a key area that sets the stage for future capabili- ties, according to McAleenan and Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition. “Agile is a tremendous help,” Borkowski said. “You can’t go too fast — particularly in the information technology domain, which moves faster than we can keep up with.” Agile is “scary and frustrating to the acquisition community, but it is extraordinarily effective in helping with the pace.” He added that agile methods force agencies to define their desired outcome rather than prescribe the specific path for getting there. “You have opportunities every couple of weeks” to change, he said. “The only place you need detail is in the near-term stuff.” “Data used to be transactional. Now, more and more, a piece of data is analyzed many, many times. 0430fcw_010-013.indd 12 4/6/16 9:15 AM
April 15, 2016
May 15, 2016