Thursday, October 28, 2010

FBI systems development problems -- and how to keep big IT projects on track

Prompted by the release of a scathing April 2005 U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations report, in June 2005 U.S. News and World Report devoted a lot of attention to information technology and systems design problems within the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which was then working with Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) to develop a system that would enable FBI agents throughout the world to create and exchange case file data and to search a wide array of government databases.

The magazine's interview with the FBI's CIO and an accompanying article make for interesting reading: general-interest publications typically devote scant attention to recordkeeping issues. Moreover, the interview and article reveal that the FBI was beset by a host of problems, among them: it had difficulty maintaining control over the development process and kept amending its list of system requirements, technological change rendered SAIC's products obsolete even before they could be put into production, cost overruns were mammoth, and no one wanted to tell FBI Director Robert Mueller that the project was in deep trouble.

Shortly after the U.S. News and World Report articles appeared, the FBI scrapped the project, in which it had invested $124 million, and terminated its contract with SAIC (which has an interesting track record with big federal contracts). The agency ultimately started developing a new case management system, this time with Lockheed Martin. Unfortunately, earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General issued a report questioning whether the new case file management system, named Sentinel, will be finished on time and at cost and whether it will truly meet the FBI's needs.

Given that Lockheed is building the Electronic Records Archives system for the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), this report is particularly worrisome. However, NARA identified its system requirements at the outset and hasn't substantially modified them and seems to have retained control over the development process, which suggests that NARA is going to have a better experience with Lockheed.

In the meantime, how can government agencies ensure that their systems development projects don't end up like the FBI's Virtual Case File and Sentinel initiatives? On Monday, the TechAmerica Foundation’s Commission on Government Technology Opportunity in the 21st Century, which consists of 31 federal agency and information technology industry representatives, issued a 33-step action plan for federal agencies and federal contractors.

The commission's core recommendations for agencies, which are detailed in full in its report, are:
  • Develop professional, in-house program/project management capability
  • Embrace iterative and incremental approaches to systems development
  • Subject all major information technology acquisitions to independent, third-party risk review
  • Improve communication and engagement with both the contractor developing the system and the internal staff who will become its end users
The report goes on to outline the benefits associated with each recommendation, the obstacles that inhibit their implementation, performance measures that assess the impact of implementing these recommendations, and a suggested timeline for federal implementation of these recommendations.

The commission's report was written with federal agencies in mind, but its plain-spoken assessments and recommendations and the vast experience of its authors make it required reading for any state or large local government contracting out the development of an information system. Moreover, any government archivist or records manager seeking to understand the potential pitfalls associated with large-scale systems development projects should study this report and its appendix, which summarizes the findings of past reports concerning federal government systems procurements.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Video of New York State Archives Partnership Trust honoring Richard Dreyfuss

On 28 September, the New York State Archives Partnership Trust, Greenberg Traurig, the Albany Times Union and HistoryTM sponsored an evening conversation between Academy Award®-winning actor and 2010 Empire State Archives and History awardee Richard Dreyfuss and nationally prominent Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer.

Many people are familiar with Dreyfuss's storied acting career, but most of them aren't aware of the depth of his passion for history, archives, and civic education. In May 2004, Dreyfuss and Holzer took part in a similar discussion concerning Ulysses S. Grant, and everyone in the audience was stunned by the depth of Dreyfuss's knowledge of Grant's autobiography and all of the recent scholarship concerning his military and Presidential careers and his personal life.

If you weren't able to come attend the 2010 event but live in the mid-Hudson Valley, southern Vermont, or western Massachusetts, you can catch a broadcast of it on WMHT, the Capital District's public television station, tomorrow evening at 8:00 PM. If you're further afield or will be otherwise engaged tomorrow evening, streaming video of the event will be available here on Friday, 29 October.

I missed the 2010 event (I was heading to the 2010 Best Practices Exchange the day it took place) so I'm really looking forward to seeing this broadcast. I hope you enjoy it, too.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

New NARA guidance re: Web 2.0 and social media records

Late last week, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration released a long-anticipated bulletins concerning management of records created as a result of federal agency usage of Web 2.0 and social media tools to conduct government business. It details how to determine whether social media and Web 2.0 content meets the Federal Records Act definition of a government record, highlight the records management challenges particular to Web 2.0 and social media records, and outline how agencies can address some of these challenges. It also stress that agencies are responsible for managing records that are housed by third-party service providers.

If you're interested in managing or preserving government social media and Web 2.0 content, be sure to check out this bulletin. I'll be giving several of my colleagues a heads-up about it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

More catching up

Happy Monday. I'm not at the office today -- I worked on Saturday, so this is the second day of my "weekend" -- and I've rounded up some stuff that may interest you:
  • Vermont Public Radio's Vermont Edition interviewed Vermont State Archivist Gregory Sanford and Terry Cook and Wendy Smith of the University of Manitoba about the value of government archives, the Vermont State Archives' efforts to document the perspectives of citizens as well as the workings of state government, functional appraisal, and the new archival challenges of the digital era. You can catch this excellent episode, which aired on 18 October, here.
  • Last year, Google began working with archivists to add digitized aerial photographs of major European cities that were taken in 1945 into its popular Google Earth application, which allows users to view present-day aerial images of the entire planet. Last week, Google added additional historical photographs, including photographs of London taken in 1945, to Google Earth. As a result, users can easily see London, Paris, Warsaw, and several other major European cities -- some of which were heavily bombed during the Second World War -- looked in 1945 and how they look today. Cool.
  • On 1 October, George Mason University hosted an Archiving Social Media conference that addressed the following topics: potential uses of archived social media content, institutional responsibility for preserving social media content, the ethics of archiving social media, capture and preservation tools, types of content that are being overlooked, and copyright issues. Notes are available on the Archiving Social Media conference Web site, Travis Kaya at Wired Campus and Kate Theimer at ArchivesNext have posted about it, there's an Archiving Social Media Zotero group, and all of the conference-related tweets (#asome) are here. (NB: the #asome hashtag apparently has multiple uses, so you'll need to zero in on tweets sent on or around 1 October.)
  • The state of Texas recently recovered an 1858 state Supreme Court document that concerned a slave-related case and that somehow fell into private hands -- and one of my own colleagues at the New York State Archives helped to make this recovery possible. She traveled, on her own time and at her own expense, to the upstate New York home of the man who held the document and calmly explained how she knew it was a Texas government record. The collector, who had reacted angrily when a police officer aggressively sought to recover the document, quickly agreed to turn over the record. There's a lesson here, folks: most collectors want to do the right thing, and civility and a willingness to explain the value of government records will often result in the return of an alienated record. Calling in law enforcement probably shouldn't be the first step.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Catching up: Haiti, metadata, New York State Archives

Sorry for the light posting as of late. On 13 October, I confidently predicted that a flurry of posts would be forthcoming. Well, it didn't happen. That 13 October post went live during a long layover at CLT, and during the flight from CLT to ALB I started feeling . . . bad. I had come down with a cold several days earlier, but it seemed to be a peaceable, mild sort of virus, and I figured it would go away after a couple of days. However, the cold kicked into high gear during the flight to ALB, and it stayed that way for more than a week. Now that I've recovered, you should see some more activity around here.

Here are a few things that may interest you:
  • People before records: as you probably know, there is an outbreak of cholera in Haiti, which is still reeling from the devastation caused by the 12 January 2010 earthquake. At the time of this writing, over 200 people have died and over 2,600 people have been sickened. Health workers on the ground are increasingly afraid that the disease, which can result in rapid, agonizing death, will spread to the capital of Port au Prince; if it does, an already horrific situation will become truly calamitous. Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health have seasoned personnel on the ground in Haiti, and on the right-hand side of this page you'll find links that make it easy for you to donate to these organizations. Please consider giving whatever you can to Doctors Without Borders, Partners in Health, or other reputable groups working to help Haiti recover from the earthquake and its aftermath.
  • Earlier this month, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the metadata associated with e-mail is a public record subject to disclosure under the state's Public Records Act. The majority opinion also contains some other interesting tidbits. First, the plaintiff's initial request, which centered upon the message itself, did not, in and of itself, constitute a request for the accompanying metadata; however, the opinion notes that the case at hand marks the first time that the issue of metadata has arisen in litigation relating to the state's public records law. Second, the local government being sued has the right and the obligation to inspect the hard drive of the home computer of the official who received the message at the center of the request. This official opened the message while at home, printed a copy, and then deleted the message from the local government's e-mail system. Finally, the court cited as precedent a recent decision (Irwin v. Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency) handed down by the 4th Department of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court -- which, despite its name, is not New York State's high court. (Thanks to my colleague Linda for this tip!)
  • As of 16 October, the New York State Archives and the New York State Library are open Monday-Saturday. I helped to staff our reference desk today and had a surprisingly good time -- we got some great researchers, and having a workday devoid of meetings and urgent e-mails was a really pleasant change of pace. Please visit the State Archives or State Library on Saturdays -- lots of eager reference personnel will be waiting to help you! And be sure to check out the superb New York State Museum, which is located in the same building.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Best Practices Exchange wrap-up

Picacho Peak, Pinal County, Arizona, as seen from Interstate 10, 1 October 2010.

Now that I've had a little time to reflect upon the 2010 Best Practices Exchange (BPE), here are a few final thoughts I want to share:
  • Archivists and digital forensics investigators have similar needs: both need to produce exact copies of the files with which they work and to document their own activities. However, archival use of digital forensics tools poses some ethical questions. If, for example, a tool reveals that a transferred hard drive contains deleted but recoverable files, is the archives obligated to make the deleted files accessible? In some instances, it may be possible for archivists to conduct a preliminary analysis of media slated for transfer and then negotiate with the creator. However, in some instances, such negotiations may not be possible; owing to this possibility, repositories may want to state publicly that they use software that can recover deleted files.
  • The Utah State Archives and Records Service is seeking repositories interested in beta testing its Archives Enterprise Manager (AXAEM) system. AXAEM automates the creation of records schedules, supports creation of MARC records, EAD-encoded finding aids, and EAC-encoded data about records creators, tracks agency records office training histories and contact information, and allows searching of electronic indexing. It will soon support ingestion of electronic records and supporting metadata and map searching. If you want to be a beta tester, contact Elizabeth Perkes at eperkes[at]
  • As Laura Campbell of the Library of Congress noted, weak social ties are sometimes incredibly durable and strong. The BPE, which promotes the development of informal professional and personal links between cultural heritage professionals seeking to preserve digital information, sustains these weak ties. And -- sorry SAA, sorry MARAC -- that's one of the reasons why the BPE is the archival professional meeting that I love the most.
This post was written at my parents' house in Ohio and posted at CLT, where I rather unexpectedly ended up tonight; thanks to some last-minute mechanical problems, I got to choose between spending a long evening in Charlotte or spending the entire night in Philadelphia. I anticipate being in Albany for the remainder of October and almost all of November, and I'm hoping to get back to posting at least three times a week. Apologies for the slack pace as of late.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Best Practices Exchange, day three: educating stewards of public information

The view from a rest stop, Interstate 10, south of Phoenix, Arizona, 1 October 2010.

This is the second of two posts relating to the Policy and Administration 7 session held at the 2010 Best Practices Exchange (BPE). The first part, which concerns the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration's functional classification system, is available here.

Helen Tibbo and Lori Richards discussed the Educating Stewards of Public Information in the 21st Century project, an Institute of Museum and Library Services-funded effort to create a joint MPA/MSIS and MPA/MSLS program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This initiative grew out of recognition that archivists, librarians, and other information professionals are responsible for the preservation of an ever-increasing amount of digital materials and must be able to advocate for digital preservation within the policy arena.

To date, two cohorts of students, one of which started last fall and one of which started a few weeks ago, have enrolled in the combined degree program. They will complete their degrees in three and a half years and will complete internships at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, the North Carolina State Archives, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Archives, or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Environmental Finance Center.

Helen and Lori then highlighted the skills that 21st century information professionals either must or should have:
  • Ability to write short, concise documents that officials will read and can understand
  • Strong oral communication skills
  • Ability to convince others that records management is important
  • Ability to determine who to influence and to cultivate stakeholders
  • Ability to develop a business case and to estimate the costs and benefits of programs
  • Knowledge of national and international initiatives that inform one's professional activities
  • Ability to evaluate policy and its implementation
  • Ability to conduct macro-level appraisals (a point of overlap with the Vermont project that Tanya Marshall discussed during the first half of the session)
  • Ability to advise government officials about both the technical and the social aspects of preserving and providing access to public information
  • Understanding of the fundamentals of consensus building
  • Knowledge of how government works and what the different parts of government are
  • Knowledge of how the activities of government are conducted in an electronic environment
  • Ability to engage in project planning, management, and evaluation
  • Knowledge of information flows across the agency and between agencies
  • Ability to engage in change management
  • Understanding of the legal framework and the legal issues that impact stewardship of digital information
The attendees then engaged in a lively discussion about the need for these skills and the extent to which new archivists and librarians were (or, more accurately, were not) being prepared to meet 21st century challenges. Although a few of the points made consisted of the complaints that seasoned professionals always have about their newer and, in particular, their younger colleagues (e.g., "they don't know how to behave"), many of the comments were substantive and, in my opinion, completely accurate. They centered around three main areas of concern:
  • People skills. Given that archivy and librarianship attract disproportionate numbers of introverts, it's not surprising that many new archivists and librarians have unpolished verbal communication skills. The attendees noted that public speaking is a particular problem area and wished that graduate programs devoted more attention to cultivating this skill; one noted that she has referred new colleagues to Toastmasters in order to ensure that they become polished speakers.
  • Project skills. New archivists and librarians must be able to demonstrate the ability to develop workable projects and to see them through to completion. Unfortunately, at present, many library/information science programs do not devote sufficient attention to project management.
  • Technological skill and comfort level. This is a particular concern of mine: even though future archivists will be responsible for preserving and providing access to an exponentially increasing volume of electronic records and the repository for which I work is located a few miles away from a university that educates future librarians and archivists, I have real difficulty finding interns interested in working with electronic records. Perhaps I'm overseeing some uninteresting projects, but several other attendees have encountered similar problems. Unfortunately, the archival profession is still attracting people who are not comfortable with technology and who want to work only with paper records. This does not bode well for the future.
All in all, a fascinating session, and one that made me start thinking that archival education really needs to change. When I commented during the session that many of the skills listed above were those that I would expect to find in an archivist who was in the middle, not the beginning of his or her career, Helen Tibbo noted that schools of government and public policy strive to ensure that students begin their careers with these skills in hand.

I'm starting to think that a two-year master's program simply isn't sufficient and that we as a profession will eventually have to commit to a three- or four-year graduate program or to a two-year introductory degree and an additional, perhaps mid-career advanced certificate or degree program. The list of skills that archivists need is growing and growing, and our education programs must expand accordingly.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Best Practices Exchange, day three: Vermont functional classification

Crested saguaro in front of Old Main, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, 1 October 2010. As its name suggests, Old Main, which was built in 1891, is the oldest building on the campus. It now serves as the university's admissions office.

I know that this is a really tardy post, but I haven't had much time for this blog as of late. Immediately after the 2010 Best Practices Exchange (BPE) ended last Friday, I rented a car and headed to see an old friend in Tucson that I hadn't seen in (her word) hmmty years. I flew out of Phoenix last Saturday morning, and between overfull flights and an overfull head I wasn't able to write anything. When I got back to Albany, I needed to focus on digging my way out from under an avalanche of work, taking care of some last-minute Capital Region Archives Dinner stuff, and getting ready to go on vacation. This post was written at ALB, mid-air between ALB and DCA, and DCA (which is fast becoming my least-favorite airport), and posted from my parents’ house in Ohio. My parents and I are heading to my aunt's Internet-free house in West Virginia tomorrow morning, so I'm going to be disconnected for a little while. I'm actually kind of looking forward to it.

Every BPE session I attended was interesting and worthwhile, but Policy and Administration 7 was particularly thought-provoking. It centered upon two very different but equally compelling initiatives: the functional classification infrastructure developed by the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration (VSARA) and a grant-funded University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill effort to create a joint master's degree program in library/information science and public policy. In lieu of writing a single, monster post, I'm going to discuss Vermont's work in this post and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill project in a companion piece. (NB: I've gotten permission from the presenters to discuss these projects, so names will be named and details will be detailed.)

Tanya Marshall noted that VSARA's distinctive approach to appraisal is rooted in its newness: VSARA was established in 2003 within the Secretary of State's Office, and it acquired records management responsibilities in 2008. The newly hired staff had a deeply felt need to assess the structure and functions of state government and to identify important records held by agencies. They also had to contend with a large volume of records that the Secretary of State had acquired in past decades. They quickly realized that these records were broken down into series that were actually accessions: for example, driver's license records created in the 1900's were classified as a series, and identical records created in the 1910's were classified as a completely separate series.

As Marshall and her colleagues began researching the structure and functions of state government and began compiling the results of their research, their objectives gradually evolved. They sought to:
  • Establish intellectual control over their existing holdings
  • Study state government by focusing on its parts
  • See the "big picture" of state government from multiple vantage points
  • Develop an objective strategy for documenting state government functions, legislation, and agencies over time
  • Capture and reuse staff research, especially stable information such as legislative acts and dates of creation
  • Develop a balanced and consistent appraisal approach
  • Document recordkeeping decisions
  • Create reports and other resources as consistently and as efficiently as possible
  • Develop the ability to export and reuse data in various ways -- including ways not yet envisioned by staff -- and to conform to ISO 15489 and other standards
The Vermont Functional Classification System (VCLAS) that Marshall and her colleagues developed uses standardized terminology to record information that breaks down the complexities of government into its constituent parts:
  • Legislation
  • Public agencies
  • Areas of accountability (also called domains)
  • Activities (e.g., permitting, licensing)
  • Transactions
Each of these areas is further broken down into facets that support many different types of analysis, and VSARA staff can use VCLAS to do a number of really interesting things:
  • Identify agencies that are or were engaged in specific activities. In addition to supporting VSARA's internal needs, this capacity can help VSARA supply information to others. For example, several years ago, officials who wished to examine the state's permit-issuing activities were impressed by VSARA's ability to identify, with little advance notice, all of the state agencies that issued permits
  • Analyze activities to determine the types of records likely to be held by an agency. Staff have discovered that activities tend to generate the same types of records regardless the creating agency or area of responsibility, and in many instances they can generate macro-level inventories of the types of records that a given agency likely holds and then work with agency personnel to determine whether the records actually exist and are being managed properly
  • Conduct functional analyses of related activities, including those that are performed by more than one agency
  • Analyze domains and activities to identify records that most clearly warrant long-term preservation
In the future, VCLAS may also help staff conduct functional analyses that:
  • Identify electronic records that warrant permanent preservation but are at risk of being lost
  • Identify current and planned electronic recordkeeping systems that will house electronic records of enduring value and work with the state Chief Information Officer to ensure that these systems manage the records properly
  • Enable VSARA to supply records creators with some basic metadata about the electronic records in their possession.
Cool stuff.

Throughout Marshall's presentation, I couldn't help but think that my own repository already gathers a lot of the data that VSARA collects and adds to VCLAS -- information about agencies' statutory mandates, organizational structure, core responsibilities and activities -- but some of it is collected by appraisal archivists and some of it is collected by reference/description archivists, and different elements reside in different systems. I suspect that most other state archives are in the same boat -- and that most, if not all, of us would benefit from giving the work of our Vermont colleagues a very close look.