ATF's move to tablets part of broader infrastructure modernization effort

Friday - 6/6/2014, 10:19am EDT

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Field agents and others in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are getting new technology tools.

ATF already had provided them with laptop computers. But with the rise of tablets and smartphones, the bureau sees a new opportunity for employees to lighten their loads.

Rick Holgate, the chief information officer and assistant director for science and technology at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said he plans to move about 2,000 of the bureau's 6,500 employees away from laptops and to tablet computers.

"We are looking at rolling out Windows 8 tablets and really have that be a substantial component of the way we support our workforce," he said. "We are pretty excited to be able to take advantage of that platform now, too, particularly for our criminal investigators and industry operations investigators who are out there in the field doing a lot of things remotely, on-site with our regulated industry partners and being able to take advantage of the capabilities that now exist on those kinds of platforms."

Holgate said ATF likely will use the hybrid laptops/tablet where employees can remove the screen and use it as a tablet, or keep it attached to the keyboard and use it as a more traditional laptop.

Mobility and the technology refresh are part of a broader set of updates ATF is going through.

Holgate said among his top modernization priorities include taking more advantage of the recent move to Microsoft Office 365 in the cloud, which includes email, collaboration and SharePoint; automating interactions with industry and improving the bureau's external website and how it meets citizen and customer demands.

Underneath all of this is an expansion of a virtual desktop interface (VDI) as an option for employees similar to and instead of getting a desktop or laptop or tablet computer. In many respects, ATF is using VDI to show how the bring-your-own-device model could work.

"We are looking at a rolling out about, on a sustained basis, 250 VDI seats for that portion of our workforce that really don't need hardware — some of our personnel investigation security investigators who really only touch the enterprise relatively infrequently," Holgate said. "It doesn't really make sense to give them hardware. They are working all over the country. If we have to maintain hardware for them, it's a burden on us. It's inconvenient for them. It's much easier to let them use their own hardware to get into our enterprise securely."

Holgate said ATF is focusing on a more network-based VDI, where employees authenticate into the secure portal and thus the network through two factors. He said users will have the same access to information and applications as if they were in the office.

Information sharing receives boost

Another piece to this network modernization effort is how ATF manages data in order to make better decisions.

Holgate said over the last few years, ATF has implemented different tools to take advantage of datasets across the public and private sectors.

"We've been doing a lot of work with our partners to get application programming interfaces (APIs) built into some of that data that allows us to pull that data in for analytical purposes," he said. "We've been doing some work with the Department of Justice, where they are trying to reconstitute the old law enforcement information share coordinating council, where they are trying to bring together all the parts of DoJ to better share information. And that will be a critical part of making sure we have access to all of the information that should be at our disposal."

Holgate said ATF recently invested in new data analytics tools but are constantly looking for better, more powerful applications.

ATF also is trying to address the big data challenges through a new case management system. It released a request for information in April and now is reviewing industry responses.

Holgate said the current case management system is built on older technology, and the front end is less than mobile friendly. The RFI stated the goal of the new case management system is to use commercial technology and agile development processes to create a continuous improvement cycle.

"We spent actually a fair amount of time thinking about what case management means to us today. We really went through a pretty exhaustive business process reengineering and automation exercise to lay out what our requirements were for this next generation case management system," Holgate said. "What we are trying to do with the next generation case management system is really try and leverage a business process management platform or application platform to help ease the development of the system. The theory is using a COTs platform of that type will take away some of that core development activities that we otherwise would have to do on a customized basis and we can focus on tailoring the platform to meet some of the functional requirements in our environment."

He said ATF looked at other existing case management systems across Justice, including the FBI's Sentinel program. But Holgate said the business processes are just too different, and it made more sense to buy or build a case management system that meets its specific needs.

Holgate said he would like to release a request for proposals in early calendar year 2015, make an award and retire its current system over the next two years.

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