Virtual Connections

Agencies venture into another world where avatars and bloggers keep employees tuned in and get the message out.

After a long search and quite a bit of wandering around, you finally find yourself at your destination:

the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After checking out the building's modern glass exterior, you are greeted by a friendly red-haired woman at the entrance. Then you walk inside, and an interactive billboard offers you information on smallpox. You climb the stairs to the second floor, where you can find the address of the closest lab that offers HIV tests or flu vaccinations. You turn right and come upon a desk where you pick up a dark-blue CDC rubber bracelet similar to the yellow Live Strong band that Lance Armstrong made popular years ago while promoting cancer research.

Best of all, no one seems to notice that your skin is green, you have a purple Mohawk and you are wearing leather pants.

Welcome to Second Life, a three-dimensional virtual world launched in 2003 by Linden Research Inc., a 3-D graphic design and network company based in San Francisco. In Second Life, visitors create avatars, digital representations of themselves, which they can modify as they see fit (such as green skin and a purple Mohawk). Your avatar can interact with other avatars, browse through businesses and collect information from organizations, all of which make up a full-fledged virtual community.

CDC debuted in Second Life with a small outpost and this spring expanded its presence to a full island, where users can find interactive tools and educational information - all part of the agency's Public Health 2.0 program, which seeks to bring public health information and services to consumers in innovative ways.

CDC's venture into Second Life is part of a federal online movement many refer to as Government 2.0, which is the public sector's version of Web 2.0. The term, first used in 2004, describes the next evolutionary step in the Internet, from a one-way, static Web-site format to interactive and collaborative applications. Rather than passively scanning information as you would in a library, today's Web 2.0 surfer can comment, collaborate and exchange personal information with visitors to Web sites he or she frequents.

Web 2.0 has been the subject of skepticism in business and government, as traditional managers question its value. But agencies have slowly embraced the new technology. Federal executives have launched dozens of blogs, Web sites in which writers share their views on a range of topics; the Defense De-partment is posting podcasts, digital media presentations; and intelligence officers are using wikis, collections of searchable data on the Web, to share information for catching bad guys.

"We're talking about better, cheaper government," says Don Tapscott, founder of nGenera, a think tank based in Ontario, Canada, that is collaborating with the Office of Management and Budget on what he calls the definitive report on Government 2.0, due out this year. Government 2.0 has the potential to improve "the quality of government services, health care and security at a dramatically lower cost," he says.

The Blog

So far, the most popular Web 2.0 feature government has adopted is the blog. More than 30 federal blogs are listed on That does not include unofficial ones written by employees, such as, which calls itself an unofficial Coast Guard blog.

Not surprising, the Defense De-partment, which tends to lead agencies in adopting new technologies and management techniques, has leapt boots first into blogging. The department allows soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to blog as long as they don't include sensitive or classified information in their posts. In October 2006, Defense formed its New Media office, to explore collaborative tools. The push to experiment came from the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, which says the department operates in a 24-7 new media environment.

Defense officials have found that blogs, along with wikis and social networks, promote collaboration better than traditional communication methods such as e-mail.

"If you have one location, and people can add or exchange comments, it creates more active, viable collaboration ability," says Roxie Merritt, Defense's director of new media. "It's more efficient, faster and more in-depth. With the advent of text messages and all the rest, e-mail is becoming obsolete."

When Defense assembled the new media team, officials first considered creating a blog, but then decided to rely on the network of bloggers who already were writing about Defense operations, including Doc in the Box, The Long War Journal and Andrew Lubin's The Military Observer. In a May 28 post, Lubin interviewed Gen. James T. Conway, Marine Corps commandant.

The office began including the bloggers in discussions about operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans health care and other military issues, similar to the way the department talks with the media - setting up conference calls with traditional bloggers and top Defense officials. The access helps bloggers write about the topics in-depth and gives the department more opportunities to get its perspective out on the Web.

Defense hosted its first roundtable for bloggers in February 2007, with Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, then-head of communications for the Multi-National Force - Iraq. Caldwell, who is now commander of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., discussed how smuggled explosive devices and other weapons going from Iran to Iraq had increased casualties.

The department also posts videos of news briefings, speeches and combat footage on its Web site and YouTube. A February video, "Battle on Haifa Street, Baghdad" generated more than 3 million hits on YouTube. "If we're not out there conversing, we're missing a huge part of our audience," Merritt says.

It's a Communication Thing

Like CDC, other agencies have built islands in Second Life. NASA, the Information Resources Management College at the National Defense University, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration all have built virtual outposts. The goal is to provide information in a format that is more personal and accessible.

CDC's online world includes a virtual lab where users can check out health information and a conference center that features real-time and recorded videos. "The goal is to bring public health information and interventions to consumers where, when and how they need them," says Dr. Jay M. Bernhardt, director of the CDC's National Center for Health Marketing.

The interactive format of Second Life makes it easier to provide educational information in a way that is more appealing to users than posting a static page of text on a Web site, he says. For example, the agency promotes awareness of influenza vaccines and HIV testing through videos, images and information about risks, and it notes locations near users where vaccines and HIV tests are available.

CDC also presents podcasts on public health issues, which are downloadable from the CDC Web site, iTunes or YouTube. Sometime this year, the agency will launch CDC TV, which will feature four- to five-minute videos about preventing illnesses.

The agency also is testing the delivery of health information directly to mobile phones, which Bernhardt says has the potential to be a "game-changer" in public health. Users with smart phones would be able to search health topics and find out where to go for tests or treatment. Mass text messages would inform people about pressing public health concerns. With the new technologies, "We can connect directly with the audience and reach them in ways that they can use more easily and that are more readily available," Bernhardt says.

But many government managers still aren't convinced about the value of Government 2.0, saying it's more of a fad and it's out of step with the bureaucratic culture. So what to do? Here are some approaches IT managers say Government 2.0 enthusiasts should follow to increase the chances of success.

Lesson 1: Make It About Business

Agencies first must consider whether Web 2.0 tools can help accomplish their missions. Make sure the technology meets a need and isn't being pursued because of its trendiness, says Ed Meagher, deputy chief information officer at the Interior Department, who is scheduled to retire in July. "I call it management by in-flight magazine," he says. "Someone comes in with a 600-word article on the wonder of wikis and great communication, runs in and says, 'I want this.' That's all well and good, but that's not how adults are supposed to do business."

Overall, Meagher is skeptical about how much Web 2.0 technologies can improve agencies' business processes. He calls the technologies "very cute," but says they must fulfill an identified requirement to help agencies meet their missions.

So far, the Web 2.0 applications that seem most appropriate for government are those that increase public outreach and foster collaboration within agencies. Meagher says a blog or social network application is similar to any traditional IT project, and he urges employees to treat them as such.

Agencies should first establish requirements for the project, and then make sure someone owns the project and that a business need is being met. The project manager must follow the traditional business processes for IT projects, managing cost, infrastructure and security, he says.

"Public affairs folks see this as another medium for them to accomplish their job," Meagher says. "I'm all for them doing their job, but like every other business owner, it must come in through the process. They see it as, 'I have a heavy-duty PC that's a server. I'll download some free software, now I'm in business.' That is not how we do business. While I'm sure some have done it, I would say the majority of these guys have not gone through the process, and in the process opened up holes in security."

Lesson 2: Think Price And Show Demand

As with any major project, convincing an agency to embrace Government 2.0 requires generating enthusiasm and support from the leaders. Chris Rasmussen, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency's social knowledge manager and trainer for Intellipedia, a wiki that employees at law enforcement and intelligence agencies use to share information, says managers should promote how inexpensive the technologies are. To launch the intelligence wiki, Rasmussen's agency used the same open-source software that the online encyclopedia Wikipedia uses. "The cool thing about open source is if they catch on, you can save a lot because a huge investment of capital is not necessary," he says. "It doesn't have to succeed. With this it doesn't matter - pick 50 items, if 10 work, the price is right."

If price doesn't work, then showing a public demand for it could, Bernhardt says. Take the time to educate top executives about the benefits of the online tools, especially older employees who might not be as familiar with them, he recommends. "I think the primary reservation is largely a lack of understanding," he says. "There is clearly a science to communication and marketing, a science to Web 2.0, much like there's a science to influenza or cancer. It takes the engagement of data and science between both sides to really grasp the importance of this."

Lesson 3: Show Results

A critical element to securing buy-in is to show how Web 2.0 produces results. Managers can provide different measurements such as the number of page views on a site, the number of times visitors download a video or podcast, or metrics that show that employee productivity has improved because they no longer have to search for important information. Or they can demonstrate that the agency's message is reaching a the public. In summer 2007, Defense's New Media office tried with no success to stir up interest in a three-week media tour by Marine Gen. Douglas M. Stone, deputy commanding general for Multi-National Force-Iraq detainee operations. So the office turned to the defense bloggers, organizing a roundtable discussion with Stone.

The bloggers wrote about how Stone and his forces were using moderate Muslim teachers to help con- vince younger detainees to renounce al Qaeda and its reliance on violence. On Sept. 19, The Washington Post published a front-page article on how the military was using educational programs to appeal to detainees as young as 11 years old to win "the battlefield of the mind" and cited a transcript of the conference call. "The Post story is one of the first mainstream crossovers," Merritt says. "Those kinds of things helped convince leadership to make [new media] one of the top 25 priorities for the DoD."