Tech Roundup

Game On

Building an educational game for a smartphone or tablet is a pretty tall order for federal agencies. It has to be sufficiently engaging so it doesn’t wilt when compared with apps from private sector leaders such as Zynga. But you can’t ramp up the fun by compromising the app’s educational value or you’ll shortchange young learners and fail to fulfill the agency’s mission.

One app that crosses both these high bars is Solve the Outbreak, an iPad game developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The reviewers in Nextgov’s apps rating project gave it 4.5 points out of 5, making it one of the highest scoring apps in the project’s two-year history.

The app presents players with real-world disease outbreaks and teaches them about epidemiology and data analysis as they make decisions about how to respond. Along the way, players earn points until they reach the rank “disease detective.”

Our reviewers thought the app was educational enough to be used in a classroom and fun enough to hold high school students’ interest—a high bar as anyone who’s spent much time with adolescents knows.

“This is the type of learning I love for kids to have,” says Ted Chan, founder of Practicequiz.com and chief technology officer of  Cook123.com. “It teaches that a lot of the math, biology, science and statistics concepts they are learning have meaningful applications.”

The reviewers’ only criticism of the app was that it’s only available on the iPad. 

For more information, check out Nextgov’s Building Better Apps project at www.nextgov.com.

Joseph Marks

Glass Half Empty

Federal agencies for 15 years have been unable to move cybersecurity off a list of the government’s most imperiled initiatives, with a new audit revealing a declining number of agencies—half—do not annually train employees on security. 

Perennial weaknesses in network security endanger national security because of the pervasiveness of the Internet and sophisticated cyber threats, according to a Government Accountability Office report released in September.

In fiscal 2012, 12 of the 24 major federal agencies provided annual security awareness training to at least 90 percent of their network users, compared with 22 agencies the prior year. 

These and other “weaknesses show that information security continues to be a major challenge for federal agencies,” the audit states. “Until steps are taken to address these persistent challenges, overall progress in improving the nation’s cybersecurity posture is likely to remain limited.” 

Aliya Sternstein

Testing 1,2,3

Contractors that helped develop the Obama administration’s troubled online health insurance marketplace say the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversaw the project, performed only two weeks of testing before going live on Oct. 1. 

That’s significantly less testing time than usual for major Web applications, representatives from HealthCare.gov contractors CGI Federal and QSSI say. They declined to say how much time should have been allocated. 

CGI played a major role in building Medicare.gov, for which it had several months of testing, says senior vice president Cheryl Campbell. 

Joseph Marks

NSA Needs a 12-Step Program

Since Edward Snowden started leaking details on how the National Security Agency gobbles up exabytes of data worldwide, it has become increasingly clear that it has an unhealthy addiction.

NSA chief Keith Alexander has said the agency needs to collect “haystacks” of data in order to detect terrorist needles, an effort The Washington Post says “occasionally threatened to overwhelm storage repositories, forcing the agency to halt its intake with ‘emergency detasking’ orders.”

Those are real signs of addiction. The explanation for this spying—everyone does it—is an excuse used by alcoholics on the 10th beer of the evening while everyone else at the bar slowly sips their second. 

I’m not suggesting NSA go cold turkey, but it might try tapering off—a terabyte at a time.

Bob Brewin

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