No matter how many times government reinvents the wheel, it doesn’t get any rounder -- and yet the public sector continues to build proprietary systems with limited scope and function. Though it could be that government organizations are trapped in the shadow of their past, unable to break free of rigid modes of past generations, Kevin Montgomery says it’s definitely not for lack of passionate, forward-thinking leadership. But, he said, there is definitely a problem.

“In the government sector, almost all people at the top want to do something important -- they want to collaborate and create great things," said Montgomery, founder of Intelesense Technologies, a company created by Stanford and NASA engineers that created a toolkit called Collaborate.org. "But they’re sort of mired by their organizations. They want to make things happen but it’s just like trying to swim through quicksand every day.”

On May 22, Montgomery spoke at Future in Review (FiRe), an annual conference showcasing the future of technology. There, he explained Collaborate.org, which will now be used as the backbone of a data sharing initiative in Hawaii. And if the idea catches on, governments could see the wheel invented for the last time.

Collaborate.org Defined

Collaborate.org is a central geospatial platform that can be used by organizations of all types around the world to share data and resources, and collaborate on projects.

The platform includes 2.2 million layers of information, and it will continue to grow as users connect and share their resources. Collaborate.org allows users to view live sensor data, such as aerial photography, satellite imagery, air traffic, live television feeds, social media feeds and air quality, to name a few. Along with rich map data, Collaborate.org also includes collaboration tools like calendars, video conferencing, task lists and document sharing capability.

In Hawaii, Collaborate.org will be used as the backbone of an initiative that will allow organizations across the state to share data. Developed by Montgomery and U.S. Air Force Major General Darryll Wong, the initiative is called the Exemplary State Initiative.

This initiative stemmed from the idea of getting all different groups in the state working together, Montgomery said.

“From environment conservation, education, research and civil defense, water supply, power, all that different infrastructure -- what if we could get those groups working together accessing and sharing each other’s data, leveraging each other’s resources and really harnessing their shared knowledge and enthusiasm to make a system that then benefits everyone?" he said. "That is the Exemplary State idea.”

And once a system is deployed in Hawaii, there’s no reason it might not be repurposed in another state, Montgomery said, adding that because both systems would use the same backbone, there is no need to re-share data. Essentially, once data enters Collaborate.org, everyone else connected through the system can use that data too.

With challenges like climate change and disaster management mounting, Montgomery said, it makes sense to work together to overcome them. “No one individual or organization or NGO or agency or government -- or even nation -- can take on these challenges that we face,” he said.

Barriers to Collaboration

One of the biggest barriers to collaboration is the fear of individuals that they will lose control of their stake in an organization. The idea of collaborating is scary to some -- using someone else’s system somehow means losing control or power. In this respect, Collaborate.org gives organizations what they need to collaborate, but it also gives them what they want -- some of that control, Montgomery said.

Organizations that want to make use of the data available through Collaborate.org can build their own portals to access the data using whatever technology they want.

“They get to add their own users and members, they get to configure it however they want,” Montgomery said. “This is a platform for empowering collaboration, and we’re not making it for them – they get to make it.”

When it comes to reading maps, for instance, Montgomery said he prefers to use NASA’s World Wind SDK because it’s open source and allows the addition of authentication. But if an organization wants to use Google Earth or ESRI’s ArcGIS reader, the capability is there. “I really don’t care,” he said. “It’s all about whatever tools people like the best.”

The important thing, he said, is that data only needs to be shared once, and then everyone can use it -- and begin changing the world.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.