Senate Mobilizes Politicos

Republicans just might have an IT edge in Washington—wireless e-computing technology that lets senators and staff check on the latest developments via PDA.

When the U.S. Congress is in session, there's never a quiet day on Capitol Hill. Elected officials in Washington, D.C. are constantly on the run between their offices and meetings, press conferences, floor debates and votes. Their staff assistants—also on the run—must keep up with reams of information on legislative initiatives and policy positions.

As befits the partisan place it is, the U.S. Senate has two IT departments—one for Republicans, one for Democrats. Although the Republicans lost control of the Senate recently when one of its members switched parties, it appears they have a technological advantage right now—mobile e-computing technology. The U.S.Senate Republican Conference enables members to download pages from its intranet to mobile devices, allowing them to keep up with the latest news and developments on the Hill. Senators and key staff members have access to key legislative updates, policy papers, daily agendas, press deployments and more from mobile devices. That's according to Tim Petty, director of information resources for the technology department of the Republican Conference. Senators and staff can carry in their pocket computers the Republican Party intranet and Web site information for viewing outside of their offices or the Capitol.

The Republican Senate's intranet, which runs on a central Windows NT server and Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) Web server running on a Compaq 3000, previously was accessible only via networked PCs. Data within the system is managed on a Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 database. The Democrats maintain a similar intranet, but haven't deployed support for wireless or mobile devices. But some Republican senators and staff no longer have to return to their offices to check the intranet.

The GOP Goes Mobile
The IT department for the Republican Senate is piloting a mobile connectivity solution that supports most personal digital assistants or mobile devices, including Palm OS, Pocket PC and RIM Blackberry units. No major hardware deployments were necessary to make the mobile computing project work, Petty says. The handheld computing revolution had already taken Capitol Hill by storm, and "seven to 10 employees in each of the Senate Republican offices were already using personal digital assistants and a PC to synchronize their calendars."

Implementation of the system—built on the AvantGo M-Business Server from AvantGo Inc. provides on-the-fly conversion from standard Web pages to small screens. The solution, which has taken about six months to develop, is targeted at senators and staff members that spend a large percent of their time away from their offices. Instead of having to carry binders full of reports and schedules or connect to their desktop PCs to obtain key information, including published policy papers on more than 33 topics ranging from international affairs to the environment, officials can retrieve the information on their mobile devices. "We have experts [who] write policy papers, which are then provided to senators on different handheld unit devices that they can take remotely with them," says Petty.

The implementation had a number of challenges, particularly when it came to channeling megabytes-worth of data into small devices that lack the processing capability and screen real estate of PCs and laptops. The Senate IT department looked for a solution that provided impedance matching—letting disparate devices talk with the intranet server.

Petty compared a number of communications software packages—and even considered writing his own—before deciding on the AvantGo package. "I couldn't find anything that leveraged software application protocols that the Senate uses [and] that could produce an end user interface," he says. Because the project is still in beta testing, the cost has been minimal, apart from his own time, he says.

Since Petty runs a small IT shop—"I'm the only developer, creator, trainer and tech support for the Republican Senators," he points out—he sought out a pre-packaged, pre-configured solution that would be rapidly deployable. "I was already building my intranet information with HTML and a Cold Fusion Web interface," he explains. "AvantGo utilizes and builds with Cold Fusion endings (*.cfm). I didn't have to change any Web layout for the information needed on PDAs." As a result, Petty reports he spent very little time setting up applications to support PDA systems. Images can be modified on the fly, he adds.

Help desk support is another issue that needed addressing, since a multitude of devices needed support. Right now, the Republican Senate doesn't provide support beyond PCs. Currently, Petty says, "I am the help desk for AvantGo and the PDAs on the intranet." He adds, "Training is very difficult due to the time constraints of senators and myself." Any new functionality or software added to the system has to be simple and rapidly deployable "drop-and-go apps," he says.

Among those piloting the mobile computing solution are the Senate Minority Leaders' office, the Assistant Minority Leaders' office, Secretary of the Minority office and senators and staff members from New Hampshire, Mississippi and Colorado. Currently, there are 45 specific users with critical data, says Petty, and the number may grow to more than 200 by next summer.

As can be expected, security is very tight with the system. During the first phase of the rollout, extending from the syn-chronization cradle to the intranet server, data is protected as part of the Senate Fiber Network system of firewalls, protocols and passwords.

 A wireless extranet setup for external access is under development, planned for rollout in January 2002. "Right now, we're giving information and data through PC-to-cradle," says Petty. "We're testing wireless, and moving it to a system [which] the Senators will be able to pick up wirelessly, and with 128-bit encryption provided."

Along with these new developments, the intranet system, which runs on Windows NT Server 4.0, is being migrated to Windows 2000, scheduled for completion by this fall. Not only will the new deployment support video streaming, but also will eventually support a new messaging infrastructure, says Petty. "Once the U.S. Senate migrates completely with its full infrastructure, which is the plan for this fall, we're going to be ahead of the curve with our intranet server. I will then be setting up a full structure of communication with Exchange, which will include wireless capabilities." Currently, the GOP side of the Senate uses Lotus cc:Mail as its messaging system, which isn't flexible enough for wireless messaging, according to Petty.

While partisan bickering and gridlock may continue for a long time to come on Capitol Hill, the Republicans may have an edge for now in the information race—or at least, have more of it at their fingertips. It remains to be seen how long Democrats will be content to return to their offices for the latest information.

About the Author

Joseph McKendrick is an independent consultant and author, specializing in surveys, technology research, and white papers.