Most of us watch for technology trends and forecasts about what kinds of advancements are around the corner. Showcasing the latest and greatest - and predicting what's to come - are big reasons why magazines like Wired and Popular Mechanics are so, well, popular.
But once the overhyped gadgetry and consumer electronics are stripped away, what core technologies are changing - or will change - the way government business gets done? Government Technology decided to find out by asking the people who build the technologies of today and tomorrow.
What follows are conversations with industry leaders who offer insight into technology trends important now and glimpses of what will be important in the future - and how these technology trends will change government.
The dream of the paperless office, at least on the public-sector side, is dead. Until every American has unfettered Web access, paper documents will always remain. So until some yet-undiscovered solution is found, numerous technology firms are rolling out products that can help paper over the paper problem.
One such firm, not surprisingly, is HP. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company is currently promoting its Exstream line of document automation solutions. According to Scott Draeger, manager of product strategy at HP, the company sees a future where document management is done in the cloud.
That involves moving one of HP's strengths into the mobile workspace - printing. In mid-April, HP and Research In Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, announced HP ePrint, an enterprise printing solution that allows BlackBerry users to print an array of documents directly from the smartphone, with or without wires.
"EPrint is what we call cloud printing. And cloud printing from the BlackBerry is going to change the way a number of people work," said Gary Rodgers, HP's worldwide market development consultant. "It's going to make things a lot easier for people."
With any new enterprise technology, the IT security guys tend to be wary. But Rodgers said security was an important component of ePrint's development.
"Of course everyone is concerned about security and the way our ePrint solution works. It takes advantage of an organization's existing BlackBerry environment, so their current environment is secure when they use ePrint," he said. "It doesn't alter that environment or open it up to any kind of security risk. So it adopts their existing security structure."
In addition to printing from a mobile phone, HP intends to capitalize on printing in another dimension. With the success of 3-D movies and the much-hyped arrival of 3-D TVs, it's only natural that 3-D is making its way to ... printers? Actually 3-D printing - which is really the process of creating plastic models from computer-aided drafting designs - was first developed in the 1990s by a Minnesota-based company called Stratasys. Back then, 3-D printers were as large as they were expensive. In late April, however, Stratasys and Hewlett-Packard announced the launch of a jointly created and more reasonably priced 3-D printer - the HP Designjet 3D - a 120-pound device with a price tag around $17,500. While created primarily for product prototyping, 3-D printing can be applied to fields like science and medicine that would benefit from having tangible models available. Some even speculate that 3-D printers might one day be able to churn out replacement human organs.
Sophisticated performance measures will help public officials deliver.
Back in the mid-1990s the New York City Police Department began using an organizational management and crime reduction tool it called CompStat. Now adopted by law enforcement agencies around the nation, CompStat pioneered the use of data analytics to measure and improve performance, as well as identify and prevent crime. The system was rudimentary, consisting largely of pins on
a map, but coupled with metrics and management, the system delivered results.
Now, analytics is all-digital and can be seen in Maryland's StateStat system and even Recovery.gov, the White House's stimulus accountability website. Analytics has become one of the most important technology trends in public-sector IT. Powerful data analysis is being used for everything from driving better performance outcomes to predicting roadway traffic trends.
Robert Dolan, a business analytics expert in IBM's public-sector group, said analytics can help resource-strapped government agencies deliver programs that meet citizens' expectations.
"Really being able to use analytics to drive better financial [and] operational outcomes is where we see everything moving right now," Dolan said.
A growing amount of sensor data can be fed into sophisticated analytic software to help governments manage performance, he said. For instance, bus-mounted sensors can track on-time performance for public transit systems. Or sensors in water systems can detect leaky pipes and notify public works officials. This data can be used to populate dashboards and scorecards that help agencies gauge their performance against policy goals.
Taking a page from CompStat, the next-generation analytics also are predictive, making it possible to use trends and past performance to predict what's going to happen. Dolan gave the example of a hot, Fourth of July day. Data shows that the holiday and weather combine to yield higher instances of gunfire.
"Taking that past information, we can almost predict how, when and where we have to allocate our resources so we can prevent that from happening," Dolan said. "And we see that in social services; we see that in transportation. So it's taking all this information and being able to use it in a way to measure and monitor our performances and predict what our outcomes may be."
Dolan predicts analytics will make its way into almost every corner of government -improving student test scores and deterring dropouts, preventing crime hot spots, improving foster care, predicting traffic patterns and even forecasting infrastructure failures before they occur.
"It is about making the right decisions and maximizing resources to drive positive outcomes," he said. "It's making sure we are able to deliver services at the level that citizens expect, and at the same time don't break the budget and allow us to keep moving forward. It is ultimately about the outcome."
Cloud services and new interfaces will spark innovation and savings.
In a speech at the University of Washington earlier this year, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer declared that the company's entire future would be focused on cloud computing. From within the cloud, Microsoft intends to create a new generation of devices, interfaces and means to connect.
Lewis Shepherd, general manager and director of the Microsoft Institute for Advanced Technology in Governments, explained why his company believes the future is in the cloud.
"The ability to utilize storage, processing, applications, middleware and even programming environments, all hosted remotely by a third party through the cloud -
that's an enormous enabler for any state or local government to expand the mission activities they're providing to their customers and users, to stretch their IT dollars further and also to indulge in new creative innovation," Shepherd said.
Social media also is becoming capable of serving as lower-cost test beds for development, Shepherd said, giving IT shops an option other than building the dedicated systems they've had to provide themselves for years. Shepherd cited Microsoft SharePoint as an example. He said instead of building a stand-alone system in-house for a specific function, one can instead integrate social media and social networking capabilities within SharePoint and then add those capabilities to all existing SharePoint pages and sites to enable collaboration, online sharing and networking.
"The requirement to do more with less is never going be more real than over the next couple of years," he said. "So people are having to be creative and looking for hosted and other kinds of shared services, which is why I think cloud computing and social media are becoming so attractive."
On the hardware front, Microsoft is making forays into the mobile phone market and expanding the usability of its impressive but bulky Surface computing system.
This year, Microsoft released its Kin line of mobile phones, which are designed for social media lovers, and will release Windows Phone 7, which will feature social media tools but will be aimed at a professional audience.
"[The Windows Phone 7] is an evolution of what Microsoft has learned over the past decade of providing mobile solutions," Shepherd said. "When it's released this fall, it's going to add a native integration of powerful social networking capabilities. It's going to bring a new degree of sophistication to the touch environment. I think it's going to be the first mobile platform to bring a full understanding of the professional needs and rigor that people expect to do work remotely."
Shepherd also said Microsoft Surface - the touchscreen, table-sized computer that has been both admired and mocked - will, along with interfaces in general, start to rapidly evolve.
"We actually see the development of immersive environments coming along much faster than people realize. There will be multiple opportunities to engage in a tactile way with the personal and professional computing experience you want," he said. "In the next couple years, you're going to have Surface-like computing experiences that will fit into the social milieu and the professional environment in very natural ways, as opposed to having to congregate around a particular table."
Improving mobile technology may bring the government office to you.
It's no secret that citizens want to interact with government electronically. But expectations are continually growing about the kinds of transactions citizens can conduct online and the type of devices they can conduct them on.
Citizens want to be able to interact with government online as thoroughly as they could in an office, said Maury Blackman, president and CEO of Accela. With the growing number of smartphones, demand is increasing for full-scale interactions via these devices.
"Self-service mechanisms need to be in place so citizens can start a transaction, complete it, print, walk away and get a PDF that they can move forward with," Blackman said.
But self-service need not only apply to citizens looking to get a permit or renew their vehicle registration. Self-service for government employees in the field is equally important, especially when trying to maximize resources and return on investment.
"We see technology and mobile devices being able to bring government directly into a community, so that case workers, license issuance, all can be done at job locations," Blackman said. "If you want to renew your business license, someone might show up at your job site and say, 'Hey, we know your license is about to expire in a month. Can I take care of that for you right now?' So you didn't even have to think about it, it's just done."
Blackman added that Apple's new iPad could accelerate development of new mobile services, because the device's form factor lends itself to taking more technology into the field.
"I was fantasizing of a government drive-through where you have government workers in the parking lot with iPads as people are driving through and saying, 'Hey I need a license, I need a permit, I need to schedule an inspection, I need to ask a question.' And someone is standing there with an iPad or similar device. I think
the iPad is just the leading edge. Other technology providers are surely going to have to respond to this. We are on a whole new cusp of innovation."
New satellite technology brings smartphone features to disaster-ready communications.
In disaster situations, communication is vital. But in cases where disasters damage or destroy communications equipment, exchanging information can become nearly impossible. That is, unless, the hardware that facilitates communication is impervious to earthly dangers - such as a satellite perched 22,000 miles above the ground, safely away from hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and terrorists.
Satellite phones have been around for years, but they've never worked as well or offered as many features as the devices routinely shown in movies and on TV. Reston, Va.-based TerreStar Networks intends to change that. Last summer, the company launched what it claims is the world's largest and most powerful communications satellite, TerreStar-1, which will power the world's first satellite smartphone, the Genus.
"Our satellite was launched July 1 last year," said Dennis Matheson, CTO of TerreStar Networks. "Since then we've been doing different integration activities of the new network, which is an all-IP wireless network, and we're ready to roll out our first service offering."
The Genus is actually a terrestrial and satellite smartphone rolled into a single device. It offers a QWERTY keyboard, touchscreen and the Windows Mobile 6.5 operating system. Users can make voice calls, send text messages and check e-mail.
Under normal circumstances the device uses AT&T's cellular network. But when terrestrial networks are down or unavailable, all its communication and data transfer features are still available thanks to the satellite. This sets the Genus apart from past satellite phones which required their own device, phone number, batteries and a clunky housing.
"What we wanted to do was to put a unit on the hip of a person that would be their day-in and day-out device, yet would have satellite capabilities at the same time when they needed it," Matheson said. "If you see our unit, it's a little bit larger than a BlackBerry."
Currently it costs users an extra $24.99 per month to add satellite capability to the Genus. But Matheson said chipset agreements with manufacturers, such as Qualcomm and Infineon, mean TerreStar Networks anticipates the monthly price dropping to as little as $5. The company also is investigating the possibility of incorporating the technology into emergency response vehicles.
Still, the technology isn't perfect. Users need an unobstructed view of the southern sky to use the satellite functions. But, Matheson added, "It's not one of these [situations] where you have to be right there, standing still, basically aimed at a specific spot."