GAO facing a big data gap, kicks off agencywide effort

The Government Accountability Office is closing some of its biggest gaps in how it uses data to make decisions.

Comptroller General Gene Dodaro is asking the agency to develop a long-term road map to expand and improve its use of big data.

Howard Williams, the GAO’s chief information officer, said the audit agency is “lagging a little bit” when it comes to taking full advantage of big data tools and analyses.

“Big data is more and more becoming a topic of interest. Our Comptroller General Gene Dodaro has tasked his engagement teams within GAO to determine how best to adopt and use big data technologies in our work. That is ongoing now,” Williams said. “We’re feeling our way through this thing just like many agencies and many companies are doing that. We have a concerted effort right now to do that. The team is now developing a concept of operations around advanced analytics and big data.”

The team is trying to understand how GAO can best maximize how it prepares data and make the information accessible through tools.

“One of the next steps that is going to be done is taking that concept of operations to compile a listing of business capabilities,” Williams said. “Then they will perform a gap analysis of those capabilities against the current GAO IT software solutions. We know there will be a gap, probably a big gap, but want to know what that gap is so we can then sort a strategy to address those deficiencies or gaps in our capabilities.”

Williams said the call for more and better data analytics isn’t just coming from the top. He said auditors and examiners also are asking for new capabilities.

“We have a number of data analysis tools now that we’ve had to procure and use. But what the CG is asking for is ‘what else can we do?’ and ‘do these tools have the functionality to provide those capabilities?’ We will probably find that we’re probably lacking somewhere and then there will be a prioritization of those requirements that are generated from this analysis,” he said.

Williams said any sort of acquisition strategy or plans are still at least a year away.

In the near term, Williams said GAO continues to invest in its IT infrastructure to support mobility, telework and cybersecurity.

GAO is close to finishing its roll out of a virtual desktop interface (VDI) capability to about 3,400 employees.

“It has a number of benefits that we are looking forward to. We have a number of field offices out there, so VDI and the goal was to make the user’s experience in the office and in a telework or remote location the same. VDI can do that for us and that’s why we are very excited about it,” he said. “Some of the other things we are excited about VDI is the idea of having a little better control over our data and our information. Since the desktop is in the data center, then they don’t necessarily have to have their GAO issued notebook to gain access to their desktop.”

Williams said the VDI approach is through a thin client setup on the laptop and a browser.

“We have not restricted the use of a personal device in order to get to the VDI environment, but the desktop they are working off of is not their personal end-user device. It is that VDI desktop that is in our data center,” he said. “We restrict actually downloading from that VDI environment to any external media device.”

At the same time as the VDI roll out, GAO is in the middle of refreshing employee laptops.

Williams said because the laptops needed only to hook up to the VDI and didn’t need to be thick clients, GAO saved about $3 million.

He said GAO went with laptops versus tablets because after talking to auditors and investigators in headquarters and in the field, using a traditional notebook computer made the most sense.

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