Imagine tracking a mobile workforce of nearly 200,000 contractors through rugged, hostile territory using only spreadsheets handled by officials who aren't inclined to share the data.

The US Department of Defense found itself in that position in Afghanistan and Iraq. It had hired tens of thousands of contractors to support its troops in those locales, yet officials had limited visibility into what contractors were doing.

SPOT at a glance

Scope: The Department of Defense has 119,706 contractors and 135,000 military personnel in Iraq and 73,968 contractors and 58,000 military personnel in Afghanistan, according to Gary Motsek, assistant deputy undersecretary of defense for program support.
Project champions: Those who have played leading roles in deploying SPOT include Army Lt. Col. Richard Faulkner, program manager for SPOT; Gary Motsek, assistant deputy undersecretary of defense for program support; and Niels Biamon, deputy G3/5 for current operations with the Army Materiel Command.
IT team: About 15 to 18 IT people from Booz Allen Hamilton and the Army Materiel Command work on SPOT at any given time.
Project ROI: For 2010, the estimated cost for SPOT is $21 million, which covers its operations for the Department of Defense, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Military officials say SPOT reduces the time personnel spend manually entering and tracking data and thereby limits the corresponding cost of doing that manual work. Moreover, it allows military officials to better utilize contractor resources and make quicker decisions. It also prevents contractors from using military support services without authorisation.

"We had no one managing the contractor side of the house," says Gary Motsek, a retired Army colonel who is now assistant deputy undersecretary of defence for program support.

Recognising the need for better management, the DOD developed the Synchronized Predeployment and Operational Tracker, or SPOT. The software pulls together and organises crucial information about contractors from databases throughout the US military. According to defence officials, SPOT is the first and only single integrated database containing authoritative data about contractors on the battlefield. It provides visibility into contractor movements and capabilities, accounting for contractors from the time the contract is awarded through deployment, redeployment and close out.

"Somehow you have to keep track of these folks. You have to know where they are and what the capabilities are. SPOT allows us to do all that in an automated, real-time manner," says Niels Biamon, a retired colonel who is now deputy G3/5 for current operations with the Army Materiel Command.

As a system user, Biamon knows the benefits of SPOT firsthand. He says that if an officer needs someone to work on unmanned aerial vehicles in Iraq, for example, that officer can use SPOT to identify the nearest technicians capable of handling the job, determine whether they're available to take on the project and, if so, assign the task to them.

The Defense Department didn't operate that process efficiently prior to SPOT's official deployment in 2007.

"With contracting, in the past we weren't concerned with what people it took. We bought an outcome," says Army Lt. Col. Richard Faulkner, program manager for SPOT.

The military departments and divisions that were hiring contractors all used their own systems to track the contractors they hired, usually using Excel spreadsheets, Faulkner says.

"People were asking when the war first kicked off, 'Who do we have?' We had these program executive officers who would send program managers in and out of the theatre, and there was no means but manual spreadsheets to know who was there and not there," he explains. The process was cumbersome and expensive.

"As you can imagine, there was no scalability there," Biamon says.

Officers saw the need for improvement early on, Faulkner says. In 2003, Theresa Miller, a civilian working in the Special Project Office at Fort Monmouth, N.J., developed a web-based application, then called SPO Tracker, to oversee contractors.

SPO Tracker caught the eye of higher-ups in the Army, and the Army Materiel Command brought SPO Tracker under its wing in 2005. The Pentagon, which was mandated by Congress to establish a database to track contractors, designated SPOT as its official solution in January 2007.

"Our senior leaders realised that having knowledge about what contractors were where - and what the capabilities of those contractors were - was necessary," Biamon says.

As military officials scaled up the system for use by the full DOD, they adhered to three principles: Use existing capabilities rather than creating new ones; leverage the banking industry's ATM model, which allows for enrolment at point of service, portability of credentials and universal access; and provide a universal tracking capability.

SPOT was developed using commercial off-the-shelf products - specifically, Microsoft .Net, SQL Server and Adobe LiveCycle - and constructed using service-oriented architecture that promotes system-to-system integration to access authoritative data.

It's a challenging project, says Thomas Shaffery, SPOT data management lead for Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm that is working on the project. He says ensuring that the system remains scalable in the face of changing requirements is a challenge, as is bringing on new user communities and supporting their needs.

Faulkner says another hurdle was setting up point-to-point integration that could accommodate custom and legacy systems; SPOT developers had to do custom integrations to accomplish that.

To help address the various challenges, developers created a web service to which military officials and external companies could subscribe in order to access SPOT, Faulkner says.

Shaffery says developers also had to find a way to accommodate a high number of users - today there are 10,000 unique users registered - and ensure that the system operates in a consistent manner for all of them.

"It's always a struggle to do data migration and make everything conform nicely," he says, noting that SPOT leaders specify requirements to ensure that users input only high-quality data.

The military contract information that's entered into SPOT includes the name of the company hired and the names of its workers, plus their duties, their locations and what military support, such as food and housing, they get. Contractors check in with SPOT using letters of authorisation that the system generates for them. The letters have bar codes that can be scanned at terminals in 120 locations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. Authorised military officials anywhere can access that contractor information in real time.