Arik Hesseldahl

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Federal Government Shutdown Idles Some Tech Projects, but Not Others

sorry-closed-signAt midnight ET last night, the funds authorized by law to operate the U.S. federal government ran out in the midst of a political stalemate between President Obama and Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives. This means that today the federal government has ceased all non-essential operations. Out of a 2.9 million-person workforce, at least 800,000 people, and probably more, have been sent home until further notice. Basically, all government work that isn’t related to defense, law enforcement, controlling the borders and managing the flow of air traffic has stopped. The Wall Street Journal has more on the particulars.

The government is one of the world’s largest consumers of information technology. Total IT investments in the 2013 federal budget were a little north of $78 billion, and that’s down slightly from 2011, when the federal IT budget was about $80 billion.

A quick survey of the websites of the major government agencies says a lot about the shutdown. The U.S. Department of Agriculture shut its main website down entirely. “Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available. We sincerely regret this inconvenience,” says a message posted to the site.

Other agencies posted messages at the top of their sites saying that they might not be updated for some time, but left them otherwise functional.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, activities on the agency’s @FoodSafetyGov Twitter account were halted. The account is one way the government communicates about food recalls and dispenses tips on safe cooking. However, food-safety inspections are ongoing, as they’re considered essential.

As it happens, HHS has the biggest IT budget of all the civilian federal agencies, according to this summary slide deck on the White House website. Its $7.1 billion IT budget accounts for about nine percent of the government’s spending on IT. And today is a big day at that agency, from a computing perspective. It’s the first day of open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, which is the target of the ire of House Republicans who want to defund the program.

The government’s website accepting enrollments under the program appeared to be functioning normally. According to Federal Computer Week, a trade publication tracking the business of government IT, the systems set up to support that effort will continue to operate.

Other agencies’ IT operations will continue to run, in part because of strategic choices made by their CIOs. As Joel Schectman of CIO Journal reported yesterday, agencies like the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which pool their IT resources under a so-called shared-service-funding model, will keep running because funding doesn’t run out at a given moment in time.

Here’s one thing that won’t happen today: The National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) had scheduled a big conference cloud computing and mobility for government tech executives. That won’t happen now, because the facility where it was to be held isn’t available because of the shutdown. According to the Federal Times’ Fedline Blog, more than 500 people had been registered to attend, many of them federal employees.

Most of the Department of Energy’s national labs, like Sandia National Labs in California and New Mexico, Lawrence Livermore National Labs in California, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee will continue operating, at least temporarily, using funds that aren’t designated to a specific year. It’s at these labs where most of the government’s supercomputers reside and do the scientific number-crunching for simulating weather patterns and explosions of nuclear bombs and other things.

However, the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., is said to be shut down today, as most employees there have been furloughed.

The National Weather Service is still running, mainly because predicting the weather is considered essential. So is the National Hurricane Center, which is a comfort, seeing how it’s hurricane season and ,well, you remember what happened last October. Even so, many sections of the primary website of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are shut down.

Update: Here’s more Government Web sites that are down because of the shutdown. It is by no means an exhaustive list. If you want one, here’s a full index with Web links to all the Federal Agencies that exist:
The Library of Congress
The Federal Trade Commission
The Natural Resources Conservation Service
The National Park Service
The Export Import Bank
The National Archives
The Bureau of the Census
The US Copyright Office
The US Geological Survey
The National Science Foundation

Several agency sites are remaining static, meaning they’re staying alive, but aren’t being actively updated during the shutdown. These include:
The White House
The Environmental Protection Agency
The US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division
The Broadcasting Board of Governors
The US Small Business Administration
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
The Government Accountability Office
The Smithsonian Institution although as reported by The Washington Post, the National Zoo’s Panda Cam is offline.

Other agencies are still operating using funds leftover from prior years. One of these is the
The US Patent and Trademark Office, which means if you invent something this week, you can still file for a patent.

Here’s an interesting Tweet from the team monitoring NASA’s Voyager 2 Spacecraft. Notably its companion, Voyagee 1 was recently judged to have finally left the solar system after 36 years in space.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik