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Not just stimulus payments: Why the U.S. government has so much trouble going digital
Billions of dollars have been lost on custom government IT projects that were eventually canceled.
- Coronavirus stimulus check delays, digital voting stagnation, and the Obamacare registration website are just three recent examples of the government's rocky track record with technology.
- Between 2003 and 2013, $9.2 billion was lost on custom government IT projects that were eventually canceled because they didn't work.
- Government agencies are contending with outdated systems, laggardly know-how, low budgets, and a significant talent gap, among other challenges.
Across the U.S., millions of people are still waiting for government coronavirus stimulus checks, frustrated by the technological glitches that rendered the IRS unable to recognize their personal details. Unfortunately, this isn't unusual when it comes to government projects – the federal government has been struggling for years to master the technology it needs to power advanced, complex actions.
To give one massive example, the Obamacare Health.gov website opened late, overran its budget by close to $800 million, functioned so poorly that only six people in the country were able to select coverage on launch day, and finally crashed for several days because it lacked capacity for the number of users. It was an event which should have been foreseen.
Online voting is being considered with more urgency at a time when the novel coronavirus makes it unsafe for millions to vote in person. Yet while some states and counties offer online voting, others are not even at the pilot stage. The issues with the Iowa state caucus app, which meant that the first, still-confused results weren't announced until a good 24 hours after voting concluded, is a recent cautionary tale. While this was a problem with just one party's app in one state, it shows the damage that can be done when election tech goes wrong.
These are just a few especially prominent examples in a long list of past failures. Between 2003 and 2013, some $9.2 billion was lost on custom government IT projects that were eventually canceled because they didn't work.
It begs the question of why federal digital projects so often fail to deliver.
There’s no digital transformation in government
From Deloitte's Journey to Government's Digital Transformation report
A recent McKinsey report points out that the US government still hasn't undergone any sort of proper digital transformation. "Overall, US government entities trail organizations in other sectors in adopting digital technologies and approaches," the report concludes.
For example, the current IRS system uses COBOL, a coding language which hasn't been in wide use in a decade. It's a similar issue for unemployment benefits, which are federally run but managed on a state level. The New Jersey state government is seeking people proficient in outdated computer languages to help update the system to cope with the massive numbers registering as unemployed.
Government bodies are suspicious of proposals to switch or upgrade digital tools and processes, creating a growing mass of legacy systems which are inefficient to use and expensive to maintain. Between 2010 and 2017, over $440 billion, or 77 percent of the budget, went on operations and maintenance for legacy systems, leaving less money for modernizing or replacing systems. This is what's known in the industry as "technical debt."
Alongside these legacy processes lies a highly risk-averse culture which is opposed to the continuous innovation (CI) and agile "fail fast, fail quickly" mindset necessary for successful digital projects.
Although opposition to digital transformation runs deep, change can be worth it. The United States Social Security Administration (SSA) switched from a traditional waterfall approach to agile development to improve its IT modernization program, which had overrun both budget and timeline and caused user complaints. After the switch, the SSA saved 66 percent on the cost of the program, and exceeded user expectations.
Lack of strategic leadership
A lack of clear digital strategy is one of the primary reasons why digital projects flounder in uncertainty. Unfortunately, government agency heads are rarely masters of digital tech. They often lack the vision and understanding needed to build a clear digital strategy, which isn't high on their list of priorities.
In many cases, multiple departments are responsible for different sections of consumer journey, which means that user experience is frequently altered in a piecemeal way, without any grasp of the bigger picture.
What's more, when there's no single person in charge of the project, confusing and sometimes conflicting instructions are passed down to those carrying it out. This dogged the Health.gov project. Conflict between staff at the White House and those at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) caused the project leadership to be fragmented, which no one acknowledged until it was too late.
From Deloitte's Journey to Government's Digital Transformation report
The size of the government's administrative system creates organizational barriers to completing large digital projects. Public sector projects have to jump through hoops of compliance that are intended to prevent fraud, but have the effect of slowing down development and design and enforcing traditional "waterfall" workflows at a time when successful digital projects are increasingly agile.
It's no surprise that rules and regulations are the most significant obstacle to better procurement practices.
The problem is compounded by frequent conflict between federal and state agencies. In the case of the Obamacare registration site, a number of states initially refused to join and considered building their own versions, which slowed the project down even further.
Large projects, small budgets
Digital projects are increasingly complex, but budgets aren't expanding, especially during a corona-induced economic slowdown.
While this is true across the board, federal projects tend to be larger, have a more diverse range of users, and don't have the funding or workforce needed to meet their goals.
This spring, the IRS is expected to supply stimulus payments to hundreds of millions of people across the country, but it has only 76,000 employees, compared with 99,500 in 2010. Since 2011, there have been multiple IRS budget cuts, and dozens of experts in the IT department have left without being replaced.
The talent gap
It's impossible to ignore the impact of the talent gap on federal digital projects. The most talented developers, project managers, and UI/UX experts flow to the private sector, which offers higher pay as well as the "sex appeal" of working on the cutting edge that attracts the most passionate workers.
It doesn't help that senior government officials are rarely either digital natives or digitally comfortable. Because they're not familiar with best practices for digital projects, they also often don't always know what to look for in the hiring process.
It's the same story for vendors. Out of a lack of training and experience, the agencies procuring contractors don't always make the best choices. When the project comes to grief, agencies have to change contractors, adding to the money and time costs.
Digital transformation is the only solution
The list of federal technology-based projects that failed to deliver is long and getting longer, a clear sign of the desperate need for federal digital transformation.
It will require a lot of money, time, and effort (just like every digital transformation), but unless we make this move, the U.S. government will continue to lack strategic leadership, widen the talent gap, erect organizational barriers, and generally struggle to deal with projects that are far too large for their restricted budgets to cope with.
- Hacking Healthcare: How Technology is Making Us All Citizen Doctors ›
- Is the Internet Making Us More Libertarian? - Big Think ›
A new paper reveals that the Voyager 1 spacecraft detected a constant hum coming from outside our Solar System.
- Voyager 1, humankind's most distant space probe, detected an unusual "hum" in the data from interstellar space.
- The noise is likely produced by interstellar gas.
- Further investigation may reveal the hum's exact origins.
Voyager 1, humanity's most faraway spacecraft, has detected an unusual "hum" coming from outside our solar system. Fourteen billion miles away from Earth, the Voyager's instruments picked up a droning sound that may be caused by plasma (ionized gas) in the vast emptiness of interstellar space. Launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 space probe — along with its twin Voyager 2 — has been traveling farther and farther into space for over 44 years. It has now breached the edge of our solar system, exiting the heliosphere, the bubble-like region of space influenced by the sun. Now, the spacecraft is moving through the "interstellar medium," where it recorded the peculiar sound.
Stella Koch Ocker, a doctoral student in astronomy at Cornell University, discovered the sound in the data from the Voyager's Plasma Wave System (PWS), which measures electron density. Ocker called the drone coming from plasma shock waves "very faint and monotone," likely due to the narrow bandwidth of its frequency.
While they think the persistent background hum may be coming from interstellar gas, the researchers don't yet know what exactly is causing it. It might be produced by "thermally excited plasma oscillations and quasi-thermal noise."
The new paper from Ocker and her colleagues at Cornell University and the University of Iowa, published in Nature Astronomy, also proposes that this is not the last we'll hear of the strange noise. The scientists write that "the emission's persistence suggests that Voyager 1 may be able to continue tracking the interstellar plasma density in the absence of shock-generated plasma oscillation events."
Voyager Captures Sounds of Interstellar Space www.youtube.com
The researchers think the droning sound may hold clues to how interstellar space and the heliopause, which can be thought of as the solar's system border, may be affecting each other. When it first entered interstellar space, the PWS instrument reported disturbances in the gas caused by the sun. But in between such eruptions is where the researchers spotted the steady signature made by the near-vacuum.
Senior author James Cordes, a professor of astronomy at Cornell, compared the interstellar medium to "a quiet or gentle rain," adding that "in the case of a solar outburst, it's like detecting a lightning burst in a thunderstorm and then it's back to a gentle rain."
More data from Voyager over the next few years may hold crucial information to the origins of the hum. The findings are already remarkable considering the space probe is functioning on technology from the mid-1970s. The craft has about 70 kilobytes of computer memory. It also carries a Golden Record created by a committee chaired by the late Carl Sagan, who taught at Cornell University. The 12-inch gold-plated copper disk record is essentially a time capsule, meant to tell the story of Earthlings to extraterrestrials. It contains sounds and images that showcase the diversity of Earth's life and culture.
As the American population grows, fewer people will die of cancer.
- A new study projects that cancer deaths will decrease in relative and absolute terms by 2040.
- The biggest decrease will be among lung cancer deaths, which are predicted to fall by 50 percent.
- Cancer is like terrorism: we cannot eliminate it entirely, but we can minimize its influence.
As the #2 leading cause of death, cancer takes the lives of about 600,000 Americans each year. In comparison, heart disease (#1) claims more than 650,000 lives, while accidents (#3) take about 175,000 lives. (In 2020 and likely 2021, COVID will claim the #3 spot.)
Headlines are usually full of terrible news about cancer. Seemingly, you can't get away from anything that causes it. RealClearScience made a list of all the things blamed for cancer — antiperspirants, salty soup, eggs, corn, Pringles, bras, burnt toast, and even Facebook made the list.
The reality, however, is much more optimistic. We're slowly but surely winning the war on cancer.
Winning the war on cancer
How can we make such a brazen statement? A new paper published in the journal JAMA Network Open tracks trends in cancer incidence and deaths and makes projections to the year 2040. The authors predict that around 568,000 Americans will have died of cancer in 2020, but they project that number to fall to 410,000 by 2040. That's a drop of nearly 28 percent, despite the U.S. population being projected to grow from roughly 333 million today to 374 million in 2040, an increase of 12 percent. That means cancer deaths will decrease in both relative and absolute terms.
What accounts for this unexpected good news? The lion's share is the number of deaths attributable to lung cancer, which is projected to decrease by more than 50 percent, from 130,000 to 63,000. This drop is largely due to the decreasing use of tobacco products. Other deaths predicted to decline include those from colorectal, breast, prostate, and ovarian cancers, among others, such as leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).
The authors credit screening and biomedical advances for saving many of these lives. For instance, lead author Dr. Lola Rahib wrote in an email to Big Think that "colonoscopies remove precancerous polyps." She also noted that targeted therapies and immunotherapies have helped reduce the number of deaths from leukemia and NHL.
We'll never cure cancer
Now the bad news: We'll never cure cancer. There are at least three reasons for this. The first is obvious: We all die. The lifetime prevalence of death is 100 percent. The truth is that we are running out of things to die from. After a long enough period of time, something gives out — often your cardiovascular system or nervous system. Or you develop you cancer.
The second reason is that we are multicellular organisms and, hence, we are susceptible to cancer. (Contrary to popular myth, sharks get cancer, too.) The cells of multicellular organisms face an existential dilemma: they can either get old and stop dividing (a process called senescence) or become immortal but cancerous. For this reason, the problem of cancer may not have a solution.
Finally, there isn't really such a thing as a disease called "cancer." What we call cancer is actually a collection of several different diseases, some of which are preventable (like cervical cancer with the HPV vaccine) or curable (like prostate cancer). Unfortunately, some cancers probably never will be curable, not least because cancers can mutate and develop resistance to the drugs we use to treat them.
But the overall optimism still stands: We are slowly and incrementally winning the war on cancer. Like terrorism, it's not a foe that we can completely vanquish, but it is one whose influence we can minimize in our lives.
China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.
But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.
Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.
If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.
If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.
Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.
According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.
The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.
But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.
Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.
Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.
We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.
Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).
With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.