Army sends in tech squad to fix cemetery

Friday - 8/13/2010, 6:14am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The Army's Chief Information Officer's Office dispatched a team of technology experts to help fix the problems at Arlington National Cemetery.

Col. John Schrader is leading a team of specialists to review and update the systems that manage the Cemetery's database of veterans.

Army CIO Jeff Sorenson said Schrader is figuring out how track and manage the names of those buried differently. He calls it a "clean sheet of paper" exercise.

"What he is trying to do is make sure there is ultimately a Web capability so people can go log in to find out where their love one has been buried," said Sorenson after his presentation Tuesday at a breakfast sponsored by Input in Vienna, Va. "It's accurate; it's authoritative and the information is correct."

Sorenson said Schrader is using commercial technology to do an inventory of each headstone to ensure the data is recorded in the database properly.

"I would say step one is just doing the inventory," Sorenson said. "I think they found that there is a small percentage, not a large, but small percentage where the database is inaccurate. Right now they are trying to get that database fixed. Ultimately, they want to put this into a Web hosting capability so they get some further development in terms of the user interface."

Dave Foster, an Army spokesman for Arlington National Cemetery, said it's too early to talk what new technology could be used because they still are in the exploratory phase of the project.

He said Kathryn Condon, the executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program, recently told Congress that she expects to make some initial progress in about six months.

"Time is single most important thing we need right now," Foster said. "We want this to be done right because we owe it to all the fallen heroes that are interned here, and we owe it to all Americans."

The federal technology community also is offering help to the Army.

The Northern Virginia Technology Council met with Condon and her staff earlier this week to start the conversation.

The NVTC will provide a "written assessment report of the information technology requirements that are needed to rectify the totally unacceptable state of the records at Arlington National Cemetery," said Bobbie Kilberg, NVTC president and CEO during an interview with Tom Temin and Amy Morris on the Federal Drive Thursday.

"My sincerest thanks to Senator [Mark] Warner (D-Va.) and the Northern Virginia Technology Council for this heartfelt offer of support and assistance," Condon said in a statement. "As Secretary [John] McHugh has said, the challenge of digitizing more than 600,000 paper records is a monumental task and a very important step in the long-term process to regain the public trust. The generosity and graciousness of the private sector is testament to the special place that Arlington National Cemetery holds across the nation, and we are grateful for their assistance."

There are several technologies as well as business process reengineering help the industry could provide.

Al Mink, a business development director in SRA International's national security division and an Air Force veteran, said like many problems in government, technology is not the issue.

Mink said the soft skills such as governance and oversight need to be addressed.

But there are places he believes technology could help.

"The transition of today's data, some of it largely on cards, and the mismatch and verification into the database so you don't have garbage in, garbage out that's going to be extremely challenging given the status of the data right now, Mink said. "It's not just records are missing, sometimes that is easier to know you are missing records. It's even worse when you can't rely on the information."

He said a lot of the technology updating is pretty straightforward because the size of the database, less than a million records, isn't that big. He also said technology exists and is proven to have a separate visualization layer and to make data publicly viewable.

The governance process of knowing where the Cemetery is now and where they want to go always is most challenging.

There are some technologies that could help improve the processes, Mink said.

"Another big area that would be useful is taking the governance you set up, the workflow as it gets down to operationalizing it and use IT tools that do that for you, that follow the steps kind of like a software flow chart," he said. "The tools routes the information to the right people and then puts the human in the loop at the right point to ensure the information is correct. Workflow that helps with verification also would be useful."