One day, at an unnamed agency, the Outlook server crashed. The server stayed down for the rest of the afternoon. Deprived of email and meeting calendars, employees wandered around trying to remember what meetings they had to attend. Other employees went searching for people who they ordinarily would email. There was confusion that made people realize just how dependent they were on a single software program. As the Federal government moves toward digital transformation, I have been thinking about how agencies can best weather the transition from legacy systems to cloud-based, agile applications.
I recently read a book in which the author argues that our technology has become so complex, that we need to view our technologies with a biological perspective. He gives examples of complex, barely comprehensible systems such as the financial trading systems, the air traffic control systems, and even laptops. It is also not just technology; our legal systems have also become so complex that no one can fully comprehend how all of the laws and regulations work together. Experts can understand pieces of the whole system, but the entire system and its totality of interactions are unknowable to a single mind.
Technology and legal systems become complex because of the need to model reality (which is complex itself), the accretion of components upon components, and interactions between parts of the systems. Think about the word processing program you use. The modern word processing program has millions of lines of code and hundreds of more features than the first word processing programs. Word processing programs grew because of increasing demands for new features such as desktop publishing, mail merges, and publishing online documents. Code modules are layered upon code modules (accretion) and the interactions between the code modules increased. Rapidly increasing interactions has led to unexpected and unpredictable behaviors that emerge as more code modules that interact with each other.
So, what does this have to do with Federal government data? A great deal. According to the author, we view our complex systems with “physics thinking.” In physics thinking, we abstract our complex systems to make them more comprehensible. We throw out details and simplify how the system operates. Physics thinking works well when dealing with physical systems in which one electron is exactly like another electron.
However, when viewing an ecosystem, throwing out details and simplifying the ecosystem means we miss subtle interactions with more impact than the interactions seemingly would. These subtle interactions that create emergent behaviors that can upend our best efforts to predict how the system will behave in certain situations. According to the author, we need to shift to “biological thinking” in which we expect a system to evolve in unexpected ways and to manifest new behaviors. Admit that we will not fully understand the systems and expect unexpected behaviors.
With the biological perspective, the author argues that we can better prepare for the occasions when the complex system manifests bugs or fails. Admittedly, this is vague advice. To expand upon this advice, I recommend using the microservices-oriented architecture in which systems are composed of single purpose, self-contained services that collaborate in providing an application. Applications built using microservices continue to function even when some of the microservices fail. Microservice-based applications are loosely-coupled so failing components can quickly be separated from the rest of the application containing the spread of the failure. Microservices are probably the closest we will come to an ecosystem-like way of building applications.
As the Federal government agencies move to digitally transform themselves, a great opportunity reinvents how the agencies operate internally and how agencies deliver government services. The legacy systems that the agencies built operated well for the times they were built. However, new technologies give agencies unprecedented opportunities to innovate their processes and customer service. It just takes a change in perspective to realize the possibilities.
Each week, The Data Briefing showcases the latest federal data news and trends. Visit this blog every week to learn how data is transforming government and improving government services for the American people. If you have ideas for a topic or have questions about government data, please contact me via email. Dr. William Brantley is the Training Administrator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Global Intellectual Property Academy. You can find out more about his personal work in open data, analytics, and related topics at BillBrantley.com. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the USPTO or GSA.
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