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White House releases IT Dashboard as open source code

The White House has released the software code for its IT Dashboard and TechStat toolkit. The initiative was coordinated through Civic Commons, a code-sharing project incubated within Code for America that helps governments share technology for the public good, with support from OpenPlans. Civic Commons staff worked with REI Systems, the contractor that originally built the IT Dashboard for the United States Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to prepare the code for release under an open source license. That work included a security audit, documentation, and a licensing review of the software's components.

IT Dashboard

"The creation of the IT Dashboard was a significant step forward in making government programs more transparent and accountable," said Tim O'Reilly. "Its open source release is a huge step forward — and a model for other government programs — in showing how to reduce the costs and increase the effectiveness of government by sharing tools developed by one agency with others who also need them."

A live demonstration of the opensourced code for IT Dashboard is now online. The IT Dashboard code is available at SourceForge.net and is released under a GNU Public License (GPL). A bug tracker and other resources are also online.

Karl Fogel, who has been working on open sourcing the federal dashboard for months at Civic Commons, shares more context and technical details about how the IT Dashboard was open sourced in this post.

"We launched the IT Dashboard and the TechStat Accountability Sessions to improve IT transparency and accountability across the Federal Government," wrote federal CIO Vivek Kundra at the White House blog. "The Dashboard has helped us shine a light on IT projects, providing performance data to fuel TechStat reviews, which have led to over $3 billion in cost reductions."

For those unfamiliar with the nation's chief information officer, Kundra is the man who has proposed and is now entrusted with implementing sweeping federal IT reforms. He's been applying the IT Dashboard to track IT spending from within the White House Office of Management and Budget, where he serves. During Sunshine Week, Kundra went to the white board to describe good government at the White House. Video of his presentation is embedded below:

With the release, an application that was developed on behalf of government agencies can now be implemented and further customized by other potential government users and developers at the city, state or international level. CIOs from across the United States and around the world have expressed interest in implementing the IT Dashboard in their organizations, including aarten Hillenaar of the Netherlands, Kyle Schafer in West Virginia and Jason DeHaan of the City of Chicago.

"We don't have to build it, we don't have to buy it, we don't have to procure it," said Greg Elin, chief data officer for the Federal Communications Commission. "What's not to like?" The Office of the United States CIO has also launched CIO tools, which aggregates all information about the IT Dashboard and TechStat Toolkit.

"What makes it attractive to them is that the Dashboard sets a baseline level of accountability that many senior managers feel will help them detect problems early, yet does so without imposing too great a burden on the people closest to the projects, that is, those responsible for the inputs from which the overviews are generated," wrote Fogel at CivicCommons.org. "Establishing such a baseline is a cultural act as much as it is a technological or management one.  Once regular measurement is being done, it becomes much more difficult to slip backwards into complacency. There may be genuine disagreement about how to measure costs and return on investment, but that is a productive discussion to have.  The Dashboard thus acts as a quality ratchet not merely in IT accountability, but in dialogue about how IT investments are measured at all. "

There is an important cautionary note to share with government entities that adopt the IT Dashboard code: performance improvements gained through increased transparency will need to be grounded on accurate data. According to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released this March, while OMB has made improvements to its Dashboard, "further work is needed by agencies and OMB to ensure data accuracy."

... inaccuracies can be attributed to weaknesses in how agencies report data to the Dashboard, such as providing erroneous data submissions, as well as limitations in how OMB calculates the ratings. Until the selected agencies and OMB resolve these issues, ratings will continue to often be inaccurate and may not reflect current program performance. GAO is recommending that selected agencies take steps to improve the accuracy and reliability of Dashboard information and OMB improve how it rates investments relative to current performance and schedule variance.

A new transparency ecosystem

While this analysis from the GAO does not detract from the significance of the release of the IT Dashboard as open source code, it does serve as a reminder that data-driven decisions made with it will rely upon accurately reported data. That necessity, however, will not come as news to the many chief information officers working on opening government data repositories around the country and globe.

The growth of an international open government data movement is one of the notable developments toward greater transparency in the 21st century. Now there's reason to believe that the release of this IT Dashboard has the potential to catalyze the use of the IT Dashboard as a platform to go with them. "Look at how many states and countries have launched data portals modeled after Data.gov," said Elin. "Authorities — and enterprises — everywhere will similarly adopt the IT Dashboard, too."

Elin anticipates that more will come of this release of code than adoption of the platform. "Come back a year from now and you'll see a nascent ecosystem growing around the IT Dashboard with vendors offering support, add-ins and extensions," he said. "Data.gov, the Community Health Data Initiative, the National Broadband Map, the IT Dashboard: these are the kind of assets that will just keep giving and giving."

Whether an entire new ecosystem of code based upon the IT Dashboard platform blossoms or not, it has set an important precedent. "The software is less interesting to me than how they released the software in the first place," said Gunnar Hellekson, chief technology strategist for Red Hat, US Public Sector. "The government has been releasing source code for years, but there's no common policy or understanding of how it should be done. Today's announcement is important because it creates a prominent, very public footpath for other agencies. This wasn't a set of patches, it was a whole application. Other agencies can now use their process, this footpath, to release their own projects."

The most important element of making the IT Dashboard open source may be the model for code release. As open source plays a part in open government at the State Department and other federal agencies, that kind of leadership from the federal CIO is important. Whether it's Energy.gov or House.gov moving to Drupal open source matters more than ever. In a time when every level of government is facing painful budget decisions, new tools that provide more transparency are more than timely. They're necessary.

"US taxpayers want accountability, transparency, and cost savings in IT spending at all levels of government," said Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, the organization spearheading the sharing of the IT Dashboard,. "Since they've already paid for an IT Dashboard with their federal taxes, their cities and states shouldn't have to buy it again. We saw a real opportunity here to help all governments work better."


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