Lewis Shepherd discusses the Institute for Advanced Technology in Governments

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Before joining Microsoft's Institute for Advanced Technology in Governments, Lewis Shepherd spent four years at the Defense Intelligence Agency where he helped usher in a new era of collaboration.

In this interview, he discusses how the Institute's small team of seven is exploring the nooks and crannies of Microsoft's research efforts and technology portfolios, looking for ways to help governments meet the diverse set of enterprise challenges they face.



Lewis Shepherd

JU: Microsoft's Institute for Advanced Technology in Government is a mysterious new organization that hasn't been heard from much. Readers of magazines like Government Computer News may have seen some notices about it, and may have noted that former CIA Assistant Director Jim Simon is the founder, and that it's attracted some other folks who formerly worked in government roles -- Aris Pappas from CIA, you from the Defense Intelligence Agency.

But not much else is known. So, what's this all about?

LS: Well, I'd say a better word than mysterious would be quiet. And that's because we're new and small. The Institute was set up by Bill Gates and Craig Mundie in 2004. They decided that Microsoft should play a more strategic role in the eyes of government.

Actually, in our title, there's a final letter, S. It's the Institute for Advanced Technology in Governments, plural. We're not strictly focusing on the U.S. federal government, which the backgrounds of the people involved would imply. It's actually governments at all levels.

We've worked a bit with state and local governments recently. In the past year we've increased our headcount to seven, and the seventh was an interesting addition. Bob Hayes is a British citizen, he lives and works in Cambridge UK, and he has experience at all levels of UK government. He began as a beat cop -- a bobby -- and has worked in and around the national security community in the UK for his entire career.

JU: You folks have close ties to Microsoft Research, but don't consider yourselves to be formally a research unit. Or do you?

LS: Not formally, but we do work closely with MSR, along with product groups. Jim Simon reports directly to Craig Mundie, so we have visibility into the entirety of strategic and future-oriented work that Microsoft is doing. Not just strictly MSR, but also incubation, Live Labs, Office Labs, forward-thinking people in various product groups.

A lot of it is personal. We're just seven people, I joined just seven months ago. It's been a wonderful way to see inside this tiny little 90,000-employee company.

JU: Governments are specialized kinds of large enterprises, so there are all sorts of potential applications for Microsoft's enterprise-oriented technologies.

LS: That's a big part of it. The core mission is to assist our federal government, state governments, and eventually we hope local governments and NGOs, to focus on their enterprise-wide problems. Of which there are many. As bureaucratic organizations they're a lot like commercial organizations, but they have particular unique challenges that you probably don't really understand unless you've had the pleasure and frustration of working inside a large federal government organization. If you have, as we have, you really understand the pain, particularly within our national security community. The intelligence community, the Department of Defense, these are massive bureaucratic constellations of organizations.

Five out of the seven in our group have some background in that national security community. I didn't have a career in it. But coming from a different kind of public sector background, and then a Silicon Valley background, I spent four years at the Defense Intelligence Agency where, post-9/11, I tried to bring some new thinking to the intelligence community. Along with a lot of other people, we were able to do some of that.

Along the way, as I looked out at the different strategic partners that government has in the technology world, we certainly viewed Microsoft as important, just because we -- like most others -- were on a Windows and Office platform, and were using a lot of other Microsoft products, but to be honest, it was limited to that. We thought Microsoft was a product vendor.

One thing that began to change my mind was, as a government executive, I used to visit Microsoft annually in Redmond. The account team that supported our agency began to hear from me that we'd noticed Microsoft spending six and seven billion dollars a year in R&D. I started to wonder: Where's that money going? And how much of it was focused on assisting with government problems? The answer to that was, at least consciously, in the minds of MSR, none of it.

Yet here I was in the intelligence community, working with the DoD fighting this long war on terror, surrounded by some of the keenest early adopters in the world who were looking to push the the limits of technology. So I began to talk to Microsoft and found they had indeed set up this quiet group in 2004 to consult with government, both inside the intelligence community and elsewhere, on these kinds of enterprise problems, and to bring to bear some of the more interesting and promising fruits of Microsoft Research.

JU: There are a bunch of Microsoft technology initiatives that intersect with the interests of governments as large IT-supported enterprises: identity management, data management, systems management, service-oriented architecture, application development. That's all playing out in governments as in other enterprises, but I suspect that's not what you mean by advanced technologies in governments?

LS: Correct. Although many of those are very much of interest, and frankly, federal and state governments aren't always aware of the leading edge in commercial software technology. So one of our roles is to make them aware of the leading edge, and of best practices. We do that in a way that doesn't come across like a sales pitch, because they don't need to hear that. And if it makes sense to advise government leaders to innovate in ways that don't necessarily require Microsoft products, that's a plus for the Institute and for Microsoft's role in assisting governments. So we've done that several times.

Our sales guys understandably focus on what they can sell today, and in the next quarter. But often government needs to know how to make better use of what it already has, or how to use something that isn't a Microsoft product.

But here's a case study that's more along the lines of what we mainly focus on: Microsoft Surface. It's gotten a lot of buzz as you know, and is now being commercially rolled out in the entertainment space.

When Surface was still a research project, Jim Simon -- who loves to poke into the nooks and crannies of MSR and incubation projects -- saw it, and talked with the team, and realized they were mainly focused on it as a gaming platform.

He thought about that for a while, and said there were two additional markets, and he knew people in each.

One is the big-G gaming world of casinos. In venues like Vegas and Atlantic City, the entertainment experience involves a holistic view of customers, from the moment they show up at the hotel, day and night on the casino floor, at the shows, at restaurants. The touch-enabled UI really supports that scenario.

The other, of course, is the national security world, particularly DoD. It so happened than when I came on board and first learned about Surface, I had previously, at the DIA, had experience with touch tables, a different kind of technology -- a touchscreen on a pool-table-sized device -- that we were one of the first customers for. It was sold to us by a large defense contractor, and it did a great job for us in 2004 and 2005. But each device was $250,000.

JU: And what were you able to do with it?

LS: Defense planners typically stand around a big sheet of paper, or a map, trying to collaboratively plan out a day's or month's or year's campaign. Doing it that way, or on a sandbox, is the traditional way, and there hadn't really been any innovation.

With the touch table device, you could show a map on this horizontal surface, and data layers. Think about Virtual Earth or Google Earth, the ability to do that on a 6-foot by 9-foot table becomes very appealing.

JU: Was this commercial software on a custom device, or was it all custom?

LS: It was all custom. $250,000 a pop. We bought two of them, and put them on two different floors, for two different teams to use. After a while we realized it'd be nice if the teams could collaborate, but they weren't networked, so we had to pay our contractor another $100,000 to connect them.

When I first saw Microsoft Surface, and realized the entire thing ran on essentially a state-of-the-art PC, and that the APIs were going to be open enough for developers to put any kind of Windows software onto it, and that it would all be networked...it really opened up the possibilities.

And then when you realized that, because of the scale Microsoft operates on, the price would be $10,000 instead of $250,000, it just blew my mind.

So now that same defense contractor has become one of the first to develop on the Surface platform. They know their customer, they know the scenarios for defense, intelligence, homeland security, state and local police. And I think the Institute played a small but important role in opening the eyes of a lot of people to the kind of difference a Microsoft platform could bring to that environment.

JU: What are some other kinds of connections like that that you're making, or want to make?

LS: Well, I've been extremely interested in robotics, and the emergine large-scale appeal of the Microsoft Robotics Studio. You and I have chatted about this. The appeal isn't so much robotics, per se, but rather the back-end architecture that takes advantage of advances in concurrency and high-performance computing and distributed services.

You mentioned service-oriented architecture, and SOA has been a buzzword in government and other kinds of enterprise circles for a while now. Well there really are multiple services being developed and deployed in lots of different environments. The ability to orchestrate enormous numbers of those services is something you can do natively with the Robotics Studio, whether or not you intend to develop a robot.

JU: It's a fascinating outgrowth of that project, and the implications are only beginning to sink in. The software infrastructure is extraordinarily general-purpose.

LS: Right. Among overnment early adopters, the people we've seen take a good deal of interest have been in DARPA, and also in a new organization in the intelligence community called IARPA. Once you get the right people looking at this, they understand what's really behind it, and the power of it.

JU: You've also been known as a proponent of Web 2.0 methods, and were responsible for bringing Intellipedia to life.

LS: I was one of the people who did. It was a great team.

JU: What are the opportunities in that realm?

LS: I've watched with great interest the rise of Enterprise 2.0. I think most people credit Andrew McAfee with coining that term. He and I have spoken on a number of panels, and we've talked about how government organizations can nurture bottom-up development of advanced capabilities using things like blogs and wikis, and take advantage of the emerging power of social media, without the kinds of constraints you inevitably get in a government bureaucracy.

Not only do you have all the usual bureaucratic problems of large organizations, but there's also a hypersensitivity to security, and also -- within the civil service -- the disincentive to innovation that happens when people are career civil servants.

So how do you nurture grassroots adoption of these technologies? It's very personal, you have to find the right people. I was lucky to have an inside role in the intelligence community.

When you say Intellipedia, people may or may not know about it, but it's been a phenomenal success story in the intelligence community as a community. That word, community, was openly mocked for decades because the sixteen different agencies -- and particularly the big ones everybody knows about, CIA, NSA, DIA, NRO, the alphabet soup of them all -- really didn't collaborate that well, if at all.

The 9/11 and WMD commissions went into great detail about this. What I and others were able to do was to begin working in small ways on identifiable chunks of value that we could create for community-wide use on shared networks.

This work began in 2004. I don't think there was any great flash of inspiration in deciding to basically plagiarize Wikipedia on a secure network, as a large-scale network for socially-authored and socially-maintained intelligence that had been kept in stovepiped databases.

The first pilot was in 2004, and it opened as an enterprise system for the whole intelligence community in 2006. Intellipedia has been a big success. There was an initial period of hockey-stick growth. That's leveled off some now, and the challenge -- as in any enterprise -- will be to continue to evangelize the business practices of social networking, and the value they bring within a large diverse set of organizations.

JU: Of course this wasn't an example of advanced technology. Wikis and blogs are just the kudzu of the Internet. It was more an exercise in social engineering than a deployment of any new or advanced technology, and appropriately so.

From a Microsoft perspective, then, is it about applying advanced technologies from MSR in this environment? Is it about bringing some of that grassroots sensibility into the Microsoft platform?

LS: I think it's both. In the federal space, particularly intelligence where you have knowledge workers on steroids, we have an interesting mindset within the account teams. They're not only focusing on what can be done with SharePoint 2007, with Office 2007's XML capabilities. They're also seeking out bits of code being worked on in Live Labs, in Office Labs, and elsewhere. Popfly, for example, It's being heartily evangelized by Microsoft teams within the federal government, and it's gaining enormous receptivity.

JU: I've talked about this with John Montgomery, the Popfly lead.

LS: In fact there's so much interest, he's almost to the point of being overwhelmed.

What I see is a changing mindset about Microsoft, and the role it can play in government. It's not just about are we on a Windows platform. It's about what can I use, on my computer or mobile device, that'll enable me to do things I couldn't do before. If those are Microsoft things with a Windows label, that's great. If they're not, if they're cool, funky, web-centric things like Popfly, that's great too.

JU: Tell me if this fits into your charter. A big aspect of what I think of as Government 2.0 is the emerging availability of various sources of government data. There's a growing consensus that data will be made available, and that's happening, but in a way that reminds me of how things were, and mostly still are, on the scientific web. Yeah, there's the data, go grab the gzipped tarball and have fun with it.

As opposed to offering a service layer interposed between both applications and human being.

I see an interesting possible role for Microsoft, and I see it as extension of something that's happening in the relationship between MSR and the scientific community. I've recently been talking to a lot of people in Tony Hey's area. These folks are what I'd call informaticians, and they're working closely with scientists in various fields.

In every branch of science, now, the work revolves around the collection and analysis of previously unimaginable quantities of data. One of the things I'm seeing Microsoft consistently doing in its partnerships with scientists is to provide both infrastructure and consulting expertise, to help people wrap their arms around large datasets and make them useful in ways they wouldn't otherwise be.

I'm wondering if there isn't scope for something analogous in the government space, as these datasets begin to be made available, but not necessarily in ways that enable citizens to ask and answer meaningful questions, or relate the raw information to policy.

LS: You've hit on something that's really important, and yes, it's an interest of ours. It's very hard to do, but if you do it, the value is tremendous.

I'll give some examples of things that we're thinking about, and one that we're working on.

One thing we're thinking about, as a model, comes from one member our group I want to mention, George Spix, because he's such a great guy, a lot of people around Microsoft know George. He's the only guy in our group who's been with the company for a long time, before that he worked with Seymour Cray.

JU: Here's something about George you may not know. The Microsoft Conference Center recently hosted the annual space elevator conference, and George was the guy who gave the go-ahead for that.

LS: That's closely related to the example I was going to mention, which is the WorldWide Telescope. George also did some work on that, and if you think about it, it exemplifies what you were talking about.

JU: Absolutely. The WorldWide Telescope is the paradigmatic example of a service layer that's been interposed between a previously available but practically inacessible dataset and a set of interoperable applications, on the one hand, and ordinary people, on the other. You're right. It's the perfect prototype.

LS: It is. And as such, it also serves as the perfect educational device for people who are in a position of authority over other large stovepiped datasets. So we've been using WorldWide Telescope as a teaching element: "Here's the future of what your world could be." It's not only an extremely appealing app -- people fall in love with it, Robert Scoble was famously moved to tears by it -- but there's also, as you said, the paradigmatic simplicity, and obviousness, and utility, of opening up data. So we've been using that in a number of ways to stretch the mental boundaries that government officials have about their data, about the accessibility they currently offer, about what new technologies and web-scale computing could bring to their data, and about what that would do for them, and their intent to serve their customers, their users, their citizens.

It really is a mind-blowing way to get them thinking creatively about what could be done.

Another example: machine translation, and some of the hybrid translation approaches that Microsoft Research is pushing the boundaries on. Here we have real examples, already offered within the Windows Live constellation, that people don't really know about.

There's the translator bot that is a Live Messenger client, you can have simultaneous translation among a dozen languages in your instant messaging.

JU: I hadn't seen that myself.

LS: Well, there you go. And there's the live translator plugin for Internet Explorer, I just blogged about that last week. It enables you to surf foreign language websites, with simultaneous translation. It's really changed things for me. I have a lot of interest in Russia, so being able to surf Russian-language sites, with good-enough machine translation appearing right in the browser, it's phenomenal.

And as we show that as a service to be exploited within service architectures, that's something governments find really intriguing. It helps them think about how they could provide better access for diverse populations.

JU: I'm glad to hear that. I've been pushing for a while on this theme, and have recently concluded that we're kind of stuck on the question of access to the data. But that's only the first step. It's great that we're getting to the point where that first step will be taken, but there's so much more that can be shown and done.

LS: I'll give you another example. I've had that same lingering feeling of frustration about the web, and the billions of pages and documents I can theoretically access. But there's no sense-making.

One of the most exciting things I saw last year, even before joining Microsoft, was Photosynth and Seadragon. We're working on making these and related technologies, like Deep Zoom, available to government organizations that have access to very large archives of images which are just sitting there. Yes, theoretically you have access to them, but something like Photosynth enables you to make sense out of them.

JU: What kind of images are we talking about?

LS: Well, some I can talk about and some I can't. But we have been talking to some state governments about their access to the world of Flickr and online collections like that, from the standpoint of homeland security, and the ability of first responders to make sense of the visual environment of today's world, in an up-to-the-minute way, just based on the open source information that's available.

This is something Microsoft has helped a lot of public sector groups, like the Los Angeles fire and police departments, to be real leaders on.

JU: So a lot of documentation of planet Earth is being done in a grassroots, ad-hoc way, for example in the form of photos on Flickr that are tagged and even geolocated. And there might be a government interest in those collections as the most up-to-date record of what exists.

LS: That's right, and it eventually works in a circular way on the provision of government services back to people. If you think about a government bureaucrat, like a building inspector, who goes to a site, takes a photo or two, and certifies that the site is being worked on in a way that conforms to local or county regulations.

Well, the ability to do all that in realtime, with a camera-equipped cellphone, and do it in a secure way, with timestamping and geocoding...

Or think about that capability deployed in child welfare scenarios where there certainly aren't enough government personnel to visit all the domiciles where trouble is reported.

When you think about large volumes of data being transmitted in both directions -- from citizens to governments, and from governments to citizens -- it really opens up the world. We haven't figured out all the ways, but it's fascinating to think about the diverse set of enterprise challenges that governments face, and about the technologies we have in the nooks and crannies of Microsoft that might be able to help.

JU: It sounds like you're having fun snooping around finding them.

LS: I'm having a blast!

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