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The year 2021 in IT metaphors

Perhaps you’ve heard that cybersecurity is a “team sport.” It’s one of the most common reminders in the IT world, with invocations of collaboration, weak links and “blocking and tackling” activities like regular patching and routine risk assessments.

It’s also a line that’s been offered by tech officials from the smallest local communities to the highest rungs of the federal government: No less an authority than Gen. Paul Nakasone, the head of U.S. Cyber Command, explained his version of the old saying with a Dec. 6 opinion piece in Defense News.

“The scope and scale of the problem are too large for any single organization to tackle alone,” Nakasone wrote. “The private and public sectors, including state and local colleagues, must increasingly rely on and complement one another to combat these threats and improve collective defense.

Metaphors and analogies work because they convey a complex topic using familiar ideas. In his 2010 memoir “On Writing,” Stephen King wrote that metaphors let the reader “see an old thing in a new and vivid way.”

And in 2021, state and local IT officials offered up those lines well beyond the familiar scope of cybersecurity and sports. Unemployment insurance and other benefits systems were likened to pizza-delivery apps. Modernization efforts were compared to home improvement and laboratory monsters. And security wasn’t always a team sport — sometimes it was a bottomless feast, other times, something much more dangerous.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they were all spot-on. “When a simile or metaphor doesn’t work,” King wrote, “the results are sometimes funny and sometimes embarrassing.”

Here are a few of the IT metaphors from the past year that stood out.

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'GrubHub for emergency supplies'

'GrubHub for emergency supplies'

Drones are still a niche technology in urban emergency response settings, but if a New York City Fire Department project pans out, unmanned aerial vehicles flying in emergency supplies could one day be as ubiquitous as delivery workers bringing restaurant meals to people’s doorsteps.

The test case being pursued by New York City’s NYCx innovation program involves using drones to bring blood transfusions to scenes where traditional delivery methods might be slow or unavailable. While implementation is still likely years away, city officials said it could be a “GrubHub for emergency supplies,” complete with end-to-end tracking similar to how people follow their pizza and ramen orders.

“The person preparing the package scans a bar code, it registers in the system, a drone pilot from FDNY comes and picks it up at the blood center, takes it to the requested location.” Justin Isaf Man, the city’s associate chief technology officer, told StateScoop in November.

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IT officials as the Avengers

IT officials as the Avengers

Former Ohio CIO Ervan Rodgers made no secret of his affinity for comic books, often beaming into virtual events during the pandemic from his home office decorated with memorabilia like Captain America’s shield and the Black Panther’s mask. And during one event last May, Rodgers — who’s now a senior vice president and CIO at Designer Brands — described his ideal superteam:

“I see a semblance of The Avengers, with your CISO, your [chief data officer], your chief privacy officer, your CIOs, etc. So you’re having a collective conversation all while having governance around it to ensure from a cybersecurity perspective, a privacy standpoint, all those things are taken into a place and it’s not just a single-threat siloed approach,” he said.

While that collection of officials might not be equipped to stop evil mutants or intergalactic tyrants, Rodgers said they are critical to securing data-intensive projects, like a an automated service Ohio launched that connects parents of newborn babies to any services and insurance available to them in real time.

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'Match.com' for collaboration

'Match.com' for collaboration

In August, the City of San Antonio’s innovation office signed a five-year agreement with the University of Texas at San Antonio to conduct up to $7 million worth of research into civic-tech and data-driven projects. At the core of the agreement is a web platform where the university’s faculty and researchers can submit their professional biographies to find which city agencies and staff their expertise aligns with most closely.

The similarity to a dating site is by design, Kate Kinnison, San Antonio’s R&D director, told StateScoop at the time.

“We call it Match.com because it’s going to use some of the same technology behind the scenes, some algorithms, to help people find each other,” she said. “It’s really important that these people know each other. They’re working on the same challenges, they’re just approaching it with a completely different viewpoint and set of skills.”

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'Tinder for jobs'

'Tinder for jobs'

While San Antonio looks to pair off its city officials with local academics, there are other cues government IT projects can take from the dating-app industry.

In September, Scott Jensen, a former head of the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, said the nonprofit organization he now leads is working with states to develop digital platforms where people can apply for unemployment benefits, find other assistance programs and seek out retraining and new job opportunities without having to repeatedly re-enter their information. He called it “Tinder for jobs,” with the first such platform launching in Hawaii.

“We’re helping states use the data they have to help people find jobs,” he said.

Jensen’s no stranger to likening state IT projects to popular consumer products: Before leaving Rhode Island earlier this year, he began work on a new unemployment benefits filing system that he said was inspired by the Domino’s pizza tracker.

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The cloud security Vegas buffet

The cloud security Vegas buffet

As more IT services move to the cloud, tech and cybersecurity officials are tasked with meeting an increasingly insatiable need for modern security tools. But the number of options available to CIOs and CISOs is growing just as quickly, making it more important than ever for officials to make the right choices.

“It’s like you’re at an all-you-can-eat buffet, except you get full fast,” Sol Bermann, the University of Michigan’s CISO, said during an online event in July, noting his own plate is heaped with single sign-on, two-factor authentication, risk assessments and data log analysis.

But Las Vegas Chief Innovation Officer Michael Sherwood, whose city is famous for its buffets, said an organization’s appetite for a bottomless feast of cloud security may only be as great as its maturity. He conceded that Las Vegas’ hybrid of on-premises servers and cloud usage has raised the risk for errors, like a January 2020 cybersecurity incident that led to a brief interruption of some city services.

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Modernization is like 'replacing the air conditioner'

Modernization is like 'replacing the air conditioner'

“There comes a day when the air conditioning stops working and the 100-degree heat of July comes, and that’s the day I regret not having been proactive,” Illinois CISO Adam Ford said this past summer during an event on IT modernization.

The analogy was apt, Ford said, because just as cooling units require regular maintenance to avoid summertime pain, government IT systems need to be updated and refined to ensure that they’re more efficient and secure than the decades-old legacy technologies that are more challenging and expensive to improve.

“Agency priorities sometimes don’t align with hygienic maintenance that’s required to do modern cybersecurity,” he said. “It becomes an issue of working with agency stakeholders to prioritize updating systems that may or may not be mission-critical. Governments are used to performing a function in a set way that was developed 25 years ago.”

Ford also said at the time the air-conditioning unit in his home was about 17 years old — well into the upper range of an industry average lifespan of 15 to 20 years.

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