When U.S. Digital Response launched 16 March, it was four colleagues who wanted to pool their collective experience running public-sector technology programs to help government agencies that were buckling under COVID-19.
Since then, the all-volunteer group has scaled exponentially, placing more than 150 people with a range of digital skills into more than 150 short-term or ongoing assignments at 25 agencies at all levels of government, including with state labor departments struggling to keep up with new claims for unemployment insurance benefits.
As of early May, U.S. Digital Response had amassed a database of more than 4,850 other prospective volunteers who filled out the online application on the group’s website to donate their time. The group continues to accept applications for volunteers with digital, policy, and communications skills, and to encourage public agencies to fill out an online form if they need help.
The U.S. Global Positioning System fleet of satellites provides critical data for navigation apps, banks, power grids, and other commercial and government infrastructure. But for the past decade, it has operated without a safety net, with no backup system in place. Now, two U.S. federal agencies want to change that, and they could select one or more alternatives by September.
Next month, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is due to deliver the results of a recent demonstration of potential GPS backup technologies to the National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT). The committee, which is cochaired by deputy secretaries of the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Defense, is expected to use the findings to announce next steps sometime in August. Those steps may include selecting one or more technologies and issuing a request for proposals for companies to develop them.
Eleven finalists participated in the two-week, mid-March demo, in which they showed how their respective PNT systems would perform if GPS went down because of jamming, spoofing, or other problems. The companies, which tested both space- and ground-based systems and include venture-backed startups and industry old-timers, were awarded a total of approximately US $2.5 million to prepare for the demos.
Tests were split between NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., and a 155-acre test range operated by the DOT and the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center at Joint Base Cape Cod in Buzzards Bay, Mass. The test portion was finished by the time states began issuing orders to shelter in place because of COVID-19; however, a 20 March VIP day that would have concluded the demo at Joint Base Cape Cod was canceled because of the outbreak. The DOT did not respond to a request for comment, but it has not indicated that the timeline for its decision would be affected by ongoing efforts to stem the pandemic.
A GPS fail-safe has been a long time coming. A previous backup was built on the Loran-C radio navigation system that had been in use in some form since World War II, but it was determined to be obsolete and was dismantled in 2010. Four years later, lawmakers and federal agencies began investigating a new alternative. Although Congress passed laws in 2017 and 2018 authorizing tests of backup options, red tape and lack of funding delayed activity until last year, when a newly appointed DOT assistant secretary for research and technology fast-tracked funding for a test.
Companies that participated in the demo had to show systems that could provide either timing or positioning data or both, and operate independently of GPS or broadcast signals from any other Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). On NASA’s technology-readiness-level system, which measures the maturity of a particular technology on a scale of 1 to 9, demo systems had to operate at TRL 6 or higher.
Here are some of the companies that participated:
UrsaNav, of North Billerica, Mass., is one of several in the demo developing enhanced long-range navigation, or e-Loran, which according to researchers has better receiver design and transmission than the older, analog-based Loran-C technology it replaces. In both schemes, ground stations emit low-frequency radio waves that receivers can use to triangulate positioning. The new version features additional pulses that can transmit auxiliary data. “Government studies and academia say it’s the best option,” said UrsaNav’s cofounder and CEO Chuck Schue, who’s been in the industry since the 1970s and has set up such systems around the world.
If tapped as a GPS backup provider, Hellen Systems, of Middleburg, Va., intends to act as a systems integrator. The company would create an e-Loran system from existing technology from Continental Electronics Corp., which makes solid-state transmitters, and Microsemi Corp., which produces advanced timing and frequency products and receiver and reference systems, among others. “It’s plug-and-play, the products are commercially available, and it’s inexpensive for users to adopt,” said Trowbridge “Bridge” Littleton, Hellen’s cofounder and copresident.
Echo Ridge’s GPS alternative is made up of a wireless augmented positioning system that uses signals from the existing Globalstar network of 24 low Earth orbit satellites combined with its own proprietary software and end-user device. “We receive the signals they are using for communications without modification and make measurements on them to determine position and navigation,” said Joe Kennedy, president of the Sterling, Va., company.
The venture-backed Dutch company OPNT is the only finalist to offer a time-based backup, using multiple national timing sources rather than a satellite network to triangulate positioning. The service connects to existing fiber networks based on the White Rabbit protocol developed by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). OPNT has launched beta versions of the service in the United States and the Netherlands. “We could deploy as fast as our investors give us money or customers sign up,” said CEO Monty Johnson.
Other finalists include NextNav, PhasorLab, Satelles, Serco, Seven Solutions Sociedad Limitada, Skyhood Holdings, and TRX Systems.
This article appears in the May 2020 print issue as “Wanted: A Fallback for GPS.”
Poojitha Kale has been job hunting since earning a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Penn State University last May, and LinkedIn has been her go-to site for tracking openings for data-science jobs. “I use LinkedIn because you don’t have to go to multiple sites to reach out to recruiters,” Kale said.
Alison Rebecca Martin and Brent Martin are both looking for work, too—she for a product design job, and he for a project manager role. The couple, who’re based in Austin but live in an RV so are “mobile and looking in all major tech cities” regularly scan a handful of industry job sites, including some that have materialized since COVID-19 set off a layoff tsunami. One is WFH but Hiring, a listing of companies that are hiring even though they’re temporarily operating remotely. Another is Candor’s Who’s freezing hiring from coronavirus, a crowdsourced listing of close to 7,000 companies that are either still hiring, or which have had layoffs or implemented hiring freezes.
As tech industry layoffs mount, more job seekers like Kale and the Martins are flocking to old and new resources to find work.
Institutions of higher education and companies that sell and rely on mainframe tech are using the situation to trumpet the number of well-paid mainframe programmer and system administrator jobs and the need to train people for them.
Although many college and university computer science departments have cut back or dropped mainframe programming curriculum to focus on more modern languages and technologies, faculty and staff at others report an uptick in interest in Cobol and related classes. The increase began well before pandemic-related layoffs inundated state unemployment agency computer systems, causing government officials to put out the call for programmers who know Cobol to step in and help.
Cobol programmers in the United States are heeding the call to work on antiquated state unemployment benefits computer systems that are straining under the unprecedented increase in claims filed because of COVID-19.
Applications for jobless benefits have soared in recent weeks. People who were laid off after employers curtailed operations or shut down completely because of the new coronavirus filed 6.6 million new claims for benefits in the week ending 4 April. The new claims brought the three-week total to more than 16 million, the equivalent of a tenth of the U.S. workforce.
The spike in new claims has inundated benefits computer systems in states such as Connecticut, Florida, and elsewhere, some of which haven’t updated their Cobol-based mainframe systems in years, or decades.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy drove that point home during an 4 April press conference when he mistakenly referred to needing programmers with “Cobalt” skills to work on the state’s 40-year-old unemployment benefits system. “There’ll be lots of post-mortems and one of them on our list will be how the heck did we get here when we literally needed Cobol programmers,” Murphy said in the press conference.
Connecticut’s Department of Labor shelved work on an updated jobless benefits system in order to manage the influx of new requests caused by the economic downturn related to the virus. In the past three weeks, the department processed more new applications than it would normally handle in 18 months and currently has a six-week backlog, according to state officials.
Connecticut’s labor department is bringing back retirees and using IT staff from other departments to upgrade its 40-year-old system, which runs on a Cobol mainframe and connected components. The system is not fully automated, and requires manual actions at multiple points in the process, according to Nancy Steffens, the department’s head of communications. “I don’t have any info to provide to you other than some of the retirees returning to work are programmers knowledgeable in Cobol,” Steffens said.
An Oldie but a Goodie
Co-developed by pioneering computer programmer Grace Hopper in 1959, Cobol remains widely used in government and by financial institutions in part because it’s able to handle large processing volumes but also because of what it would cost in time and money to replace. In addition to state governments, multiple federal agencies still use it, according to a 2016 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Cobol powers 95 percent of ATM swipes, 80 percent of in-person transactions and 43 percent of banking systems, according to Reuters.
Despite being so ubiquitous, there aren’t a lot of programmers who work in it. In Spectrum’s 2019 list of top programming languages, Cobol ranked 44th.
The current crisis could change that. Since January, the share of Indeed job postings per million that mention “Cobol” have increased by 6.47 percent, according to a spokesperson for the popular job board.
As states struggle, seasoned programmers are lining up to help. In recent weeks, Cobol Cowboys has been inundated with inquiries from veteran programmers interested in putting their Cobol skills to work. The Gainesville, Texas, firm operates as a job placement agency to match programmers who work as independent contractors with public and private sector projects that fit their skills.
In the past three years, the company’s database of programmers who know Cobol and other, more modern languages, has grown from 50 to close to 350. Their average age is between 45 and 60. “We have an older gentleman, a man who did some work with Grace Hopper, who I’d say is in his mid-80s,” said Eileen Hinshaw, the company’s chief operating officer.
Cobol Cowboys contacted the state of New Jersey after seeing Gov. Murphy’s press conference, and is currently “in communications with the state,” Hinshaw said.
Other Programmers Ready to Help
Long-time programmers aren’t the only ones eager to help. Hasnain Attarwala also contacted New Jersey after seeing the governor’s press conference. Attarwala, 30, is a month shy of earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Northern Illinois University (NIU), where he’s studied mainframe computers.
Attarwala, who is the student chair of NIU’s Association of Computing Machinery chapter, has a job lined up after graduation, but wants to donate his time now. In the past week, he collected names of other NIU students who want help and talked to a volunteer coordinator for U.S. Digital Response, which is helping New Jersey line up volunteers with digital and other skills. As of 9 April, Attarwala was waiting to hear if his services were needed.
U.S. Digital Response was formed last month by a group of public-interest technologists, including some who worked in technology roles in the Obama administration. The group is acting as a clearinghouse for federal and state agencies that need assistance and volunteers with digital skills who want to provide it. In addition to screening volunteers, the group designed New Jersey’s tech talent volunteer application form, among other projects.
More than 3,500 people have added their names to U.S. Digital Response’s volunteer pool, although the number of people who’ve been placed so far is well below that, according to Cori Zarek, one of the group’s co-founders and a deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer from 2016 to 2017.
The group doesn’t collect demographic data so it’s impossible to know people’s ages or employment status, Zarek said. Still, “We’ve seen lots of seasoned veterans of these mainframe systems raising their hands. It’s incredible. It’s not just in New Jersey. We are absolutely eager to understand who can bring those skills to be ready to solve some of these problems,” said Zarek, who also runs the Digital Service Collaborative at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact.
States that upgraded unemployment claims systems in recent years may be better able to weather the onslaught of claims. Several formed consortiums to create a core unemployment insurance system that can be tailored to meet each one’s requirements. One consortium is ReEmployUSA, which started in Mississippi, and was subsequently adopted by Maine and Rhode Island, though not without problems. Connecticut was in the process of switching to ReEmployUSA before COVID-19 unraveled those plans.
An Arizona man is suing the state’s technical registration board to protest being fined for working without an engineering license, which he maintains he doesn’t need because it doesn’t pertain to the type of work he performs.
It’s the latest case pitting engineers against state licensing agencies that by some accounts have become more aggressive in attempting to regulate who can call themselves an engineer, even as the use of that term becomes more widespread. Meanwhile, licensing proponents maintain it’s necessary for the public interest and point out that Arizona statutes have clear definitions of what an engineer is.
Mats Järlström’s six-year crusade to make yellow traffic lights safer for drivers could finally be paying off.
In mid-October, an Institute of Transportation Engineers appeals panel agreed with the Oregon consultant’s claims that a long-standing, widely used formula for setting the timing of yellow traffic lights doesn’t adequately account for the extra time a driver might need to safely and comfortably make a turn through an intersection.
The three-person ITE panel findings [PDF] didn’t suggest what the timing should be. A separate ITE committee will propose recommended practice for so-called “dilemma-zone situations for left-turn and right-turn movements” that the organization’s board must then approve. According to ITE Chief Technical Director Jeff Lindley, that process is underway and ITE could publish guidelines during the first quarter of 2020.
“It’s a historic moment,” Järlström said of the appeal panel’s decision. “This is a very conservative area of technology. There are many traffic signals that need to be changed. We want to change it so all of them are consistent, not only in the U.S. but through the world.”
Package handlers who work on FedEx Ground loading docks load and unload 8.5 million packages a day. The volume and the physical nature of the work make it a tough job—tougher than many new hires realize until they do it. Some quit almost immediately, according to Denise Abbott, FedEx Ground’s vice president of human resources.
So, when FedEx Corp.’s truck package delivery division evaluated how best to incorporate virtual reality into employee training, teaching newly hired package handlers what to expect on the job and how to stay safe doing it quickly rose to the top of the list.
“It allows us to bring an immersive learning technology into the classroom so people can practice before they step foot on a dock,” said Jefferson Welch, human resource director for FedEx Ground University, the division’s training arm. He and Abbott talked about the company’s foray into VR-based training during a presentation at the recent HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas.
At RPM Pizza, a chatbot nicknamed “Dottie” has made hiring almost as fast as delivering pizzas.
RPM adopted the text message-based chatbot along with live chat and text-based job applications to speed up multiple aspects of the hiring process, including identifying promising job candidates and scheduling initial interviews.
It makes sense to use texting for hiring, said Merrin Mueller, RPM’s head of people and marketing, during a presentation on the chatbot at the recent HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas. Job hunters respond to a text faster than an email. At a time when U.S. unemployment is low, competition for hourly workers is fierce, and company recruiters are overwhelmed, you have to act fast.
“People who apply here are applying at Taco Bell and McDonald’s too, and if we don’t get to them right away and hire them faster, they’ve already been offered a job somewhere else,” Mueller said.
Early data from the government-mandated systems points to a substantial decrease in driver hours-of-service violations
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