The space shuttle Discovery STS-133 lifts off from launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center for a mission to the Internatonal Space Station. (Michael R. Brown / Florida Today)
The first time the space shuttle took to the skies some two years after the 2003 Columbia disaster, something went wrong. A thermal blanket had peeled away, blocking the pilot's vision. Was it serious? To find out, analysts across the nation needed shared access to preflight photos.
Not so easy.
"There were people all over the country trying to find this picture, while everyone was in a real-time teleconference trying to figure out what they were going to be able to do," said Jeff Wolfe, a photo planner at NASA Kennedy Space Center.
The problem turned out to be a false alarm, but the experience illustrates a point: Information is only as good as our ability to share it. Fortunately for Wolfe, and for other feds, powerful tools are making such real-time collaborations possible.
Wolfe solves his collaboration conundrum with Presto, a tool sold on subscription from Inmagic of Woburn, Mass. An Internet-based solution, the software lets him share millions of high-resolution images with collaborators easily and within budget.
That financial component is part of the beauty of many of the new tools, which range in price from free to thousands of dollars. The price for Inmagic Presto varies by application and number of users, starting at around $15,000 per year for a modest-sized community.
"A lot of older systems basically have an IT team supporting them, and you have to pay by the seat," Wolfe said. Thanks to Web-based technology, "right now there are just two people running all of this content, so you don't have to have all of that overhead. People who need it can just access it, without paying those individual license fees."
Self-service is at least as important to managers as budgetary concerns. By taking the reins away from the information technology staff and handing them to end users, vendors are allowing collaborative efforts to happen faster and more easily than ever before.
At the Social Security Administration, chief information officer Frank Baitman likes Alfresco, an open-source, Web-based collaboration tool that allows users to create and structure sites with sharable data. The tool is from Alfresco Software Inc., whose U.S. headquarters is in Atlanta.
Recently, Baitman's team launched an Alfresco site to share employees' professional data within his office. He said he hopes this open book will lead others in SSA to work with his people based on their special expertise.
With no administrator needed to oversee site development, "any user can create a site and structure it for whatever purpose they have. It's really a self-service tool," Baitman said.
Some of the newest collaboration tools are from the biggest-name players. Take, for instance, Google Apps, a suite of traditional office tools that emphasizes sharing. Colleagues can work together on an online copy of a document, or publish projects to internal groups.
"This is the most exciting thing out there," said Jim Helou, senior vice president of sales at DLT Solutions, a value-added IT reseller based in Herndon, Va.
"You can create a shared document, put it up in a secure government portion of the cloud, and collaborate on that document in real time to share information and make updates," he said. It costs about $50 per user, "and the ease of implementation is very simple. You create some accounts, create some users and you can be sharing a document in 15 minutes."
If Google Apps is the newest game in town, Microsoft SharePoint is the workhorse of project-sharing. Although it has long been a staple in the workplace, new uses are keeping it relevant in government.
The National Park Service has some 140 projects in the works thanks to stimulus spending — everything from Everglades restoration in Florida to the rehabilitation of the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall.
All these projects come with paperwork. Documents, drawings, maps and blueprints all must be shared by architects, engineers, construction teams and management partners. E-mail won't cut it, said Edie Ramey, division chief of information management at the Park Service's Denver Service Center. Files are too big, security too uncertain and recipient lists too hard to keep current.
The Park Service solves the problem with a mix of technologies. It uses secure file transfer software from Accellion of Palo Alto, Calif., to manage the motion of so many very large documents, then makes the end product accessible in SharePoint for all the relevant parties to share.
The solution solves two integral questions in the world of collaboration: who gets in and who stays out.
"It's all about the security," Ramey said. "We used to have something that was basically a big old file-share. Anyone could get in with a generic password and address. They would have access to any files on the [shared space], not just their project files that I would give them permission to see."
Microsoft executives see work-sharing technology moving one step further, especially in the federal realm. Not only can collaboration tools ensure security today, they can provide for accountability tomorrow.
"In government, the things they do could become public record, so they have to be trackable and auditable," said Radu Burducea, Microsoft federal dynamics director.
A number of smaller vendors are making waves. Among them:
• Basecamp, with its online collaboration and project management capabilities, allows groups to set timelines and track milestones, create templates and arrange for group messaging. (www.basecamphq.com)
• Clarizen lets project managers deliver real-time updates while tracking a project's progress. Members can have instant message-style discussions and write notes within the system. (clarizen.com)
• Merlin is for Mac users, letting them share information via the Web or export a shared timeline to their iCal. Merlin works iPhones. (merlinsoftware.com)