Things that go unnoticed are often the most important. In fact, it is by virtue of the fact that they go unnoticed and allow life to proceed smoothly that most people take life’s most innocuous things for granted. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is historically rooted in this concept and the organization’s purpose is easily understood through examination of the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904.
On Feb. 7 and 8, 1904, Baltimore burned. The fire caused the modern-day equivalent of $3.84 billion in damage, left 35,000 people unemployed and somehow, killed no one. The event prompted several changes in government and American society at large, but perhaps the most important legacy of the event was that it crystallized the role of what was then known as the National Bureau of Standards, later to be called NIST.
When fire trucks from all around the region traveled to Baltimore to assist with the fire, they discovered that their equipment was often incompatible with Baltimore fire hydrants. The National Fire Protection Association standardized hydrant and hose connections following the event, and so while most people never think or worry that a firefighter’s hose will be able to connect to a hydrant should a fire start near their home, it’s an important detail that someone ought to be responsible for. That’s NIST’s job.
NIST does not dictate that a certain standard should be used, but in cases where public safety or the public good can be affected, the agency convenes the organizations involved in whatever the regulated space may be — fire, the energy grid, timekeeping — and allows those groups to volunteer their services to make a determination about how that space should be standardized. After industry creates a standard, it’s also NIST’s job to ensure that that standard is reliable.
NIST also runs several laboratories around the U.S., such as the NIST Center for Neutron Research and the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, and programs like the now-defunct Technology Innovation Program, which was designed to encourage high-risk, high-reward research projects aimed at finding solutions to critical national needs. The bulk of NIST's work, though, is around promoting standards through industrial competitiveness.
In 2014, the agency released its Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity, offering a set of principles by which government agencies could evaluate their cybersecurity posture against other jurisdictions using common language. At the time, chief information security officers were hopeful that the guidance from NIST would help advance best practices in IT security.
Aneesh Chopra, president of NavHealth and former federal chief technology officer, told Government Technology that he has a soft spot for NIST, because the biggest challenges the U.S. faces are at the intersection of public and private interests.
“We’ll need many, many more entrepreneurs and innovators to connect and participate in energy and education,” Chopra said. “The connective tissue that brings the public and private sectors together and the entrepreneurs into the industry themselves are open standards, increasingly digital standards.”
NIST works on a broad range of project areas, from the electric smart grid to education. NIST makes sure that private companies aren’t using proprietary charging adapters for their electric vehicles. Thanks to NIST, the Green Button initiative enabled 60 million households and businesses to access their energy usage data.
“If we had an open data standard for electronic health records, we could have thousands of people building health applications. Millions," Chopra said. "If we had digital standards for the energy sector and the learning and educational sectors, for network security, any of these issues, we’re going to need that public-private startup-to-legacy interface and NIST is a great convener to bring those interfaces to life.”
Editor's Note: Minor edits were made for clarity on August 22, 2016.
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.