Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

May 29 2012

US CTO seeks to scale agile thinking and open data across federal government

In the 21st century, federal government must go mobile, putting government services and information at the fingertips of citizens, said United States Chief Technology Officer Todd Park in a recent wide-ranging interview. "That's the first digital government result, outcome, and objective that's desired."

To achieve that vision, Park and U.S. chief information officer Steven VanRoekel are working together to improve how government shares data, architects new digital services and collaborates across agencies to reduce costs and increase productivity through smarter use of information technology.

Park, who was chosen by President Obama to be the second CTO of the United States in March, has been (relatively) quiet over the course of his first two months on the job.

Last Wednesday, that changed. Park launched a new Presidential innovation Fellows program, in concert with VanRoekel's new digital government strategy, at TechCrunch's Disrupt conference in New York City. This was followed by another event for a government audience at the Interior Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. Last Friday, he presented his team's agenda to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

"The way I think about the strategy is that you're really talking about three elements," said Park, in our interview. "First, it's going mobile, putting government services at the literal fingertips of the people in the same way that basically every other industry and sector has done. Second, it's being smarter about how we procure technology as we move government in this direction. Finally, it's liberating data. In the end, it's the idea of 'government as a platform.'"

"We're looking for a few good men and women"

In the context of the nation's new digital government strategy, Park announced the launch of five projects that this new class of Innovation Fellows will be entrusted with implementing: a broad Open Data Initiative, Blue Button for America, RFP-EZ, The 20% Campaign, and MyGov.

The idea of the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program, said Park, is to bring in people from outside government to work with innovators inside the government. These agile teams will work together within a six-month time frame to deliver results.

The fellowships are basically scaling up the idea of "entrepreneurs in residence," said Park. "It's a portfolio of five projects that, on top of the digital government strategy, will advance the implementation of it in a variety of ways."

The biggest challenge to bringing the five programs that the US CTO has proposed to successful completion is getting 15 talented men and women to join his team and implement them. There's reason for optimism. Park shared vie email that:

"... within 24 hours of TechCrunch Disrupt, 600 people had already registered via Whitehouse.gov to apply to be a Presidential Innovation Fellow, and another several hundred people had expressed interest in following and engaging in the five projects in some other capacity."

To put that in context, Code for America received 550 applications for 24 fellowships last year. That makes both of these fellowships more competitive than getting in to Harvard in 2012, which received 34,285 applications for its next freshman class. There appears to be considerable appetite for a different kind of public service that applies technology and data for the public good.

Park is enthusiastic about putting open government data to work on behalf of the American people, amplifying the vision that his predecessor, Aneesh Chopra, championed around the country for the past three years.

"The fellows are going to have an extraordinary opportunity to make government work better for their fellow citizens," said Park in our interview. "These projects leverage, substantiate and push forward the whole principle of liberating data. Liberate data."

"To me, one of the aspects of the strategy about which I am most excited, that sends my heart into overdrive, is the idea that going forward, the default state of government data shall be open and machine-readable," said Park. "I think that's just fantastic. You'll want to, of course, evolve the legacy data as fast as you can in that same direction. Setting that as 'this is how we are rolling going forward' — and this is where we expect data to ultimately go — is just terrific."

In the videos and interview that follow, Park talks more about his vision for each of the programs.

A federal government-wide Open Data Initiative

In the video below, Park discusses the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and introduces the first program, which focuses on open data:

Park: The Open Data Initiative is a program to seed and expand the work that we're doing to liberate government data as a platform. Encourage, on a voluntary basis, the liberation of data by corporations, as part of the national data platform, and to actively stimulate the development of new tools and services, and enhance existing tools and services, leveraging the data to help improve Americans' lives in very tangible ways, and create jobs for the future.

This leverages the Open Government Directive to say "look, the default going forward is open data." Also the directive to "API-ize" two high priority datasets and also, in targeted ways, go beyond that, and really push to get more data out there in, critically, machine-readable form, in APIs, and to educate the entrepreneur and innovators of the world that it's there through meetups, and hackathons, and challenges, and "Datapaloozas."

We're doubling down on the Health Data Initiative, we are also launching a much more high-profile Safety Data Initiative, which we kicked off last week. An Energy Data Initiative, which kicked off this week. An education data initiative, which we're kicking off soon, and an Impact Data Initiative, which is about liberating data with respect to inputs and outputs in the non-profit space.

We're also going to be exploring an initiative in the realm of personal finance, enabling Americans to access copies of their financial data from public sector agencies and private sector institutions. So, the format that we're going to be leveraging to execute these initiatives is cloned from the Health Data Initiative.

This will make new data available. It will also take the existing public data that is unusable to developers, i.e. in the form of PDFs, books or static websites, and turn it into liquid machine-readable, downloadable, accessible data via API. Then — because we're consistently hearing that 95% of the innovators and entrepreneurs who could turn our data into magic don't even know the data exists, let alone that it's available to them — engage the developer community and the entrepreneurial community with the data from the beginning. Let them know it's there, get their feedback, make it better.

Blue Button for America

Park: The idea is to develop an open source patient portal capability that will replace MyHealthyVet, which is the Veterans Administration's current patient portal. This will actually allow the Blue Button itself to iterate and evolve more rapidly, so that everY time you add more data to it, it won't require heart surgery. It will be a lot easier, and of course will be open source, so that anyone else who wants to use it can use it as well. On top of that, we're going to do a lot of "biz dev" in America to get the word out about Blue Button and encourage more and more holders of data in the private sector to adopt Blue Button. We're also going to work to help stimulate more tool development by entrepreneurs that can upload Blue Button data and make it useful in all kinds of ways for patients. That's Blue Button for America.

What is RFP-EZ?

Park: The objective is "buying smarter." The project that we're working ON with the Small Business Administration on is called "RFP-EZ."

Basically, it's the idea of setting up a streamlined process for the government to procure solutions from innovative, high-growth tech companies. As you know, most high-growth companies regard the government as way too difficult to sell to.

That A) deprives startups and high-growth companies from the government as a marketplace and, B) perhaps even more problematically, actually deprives the government of their solutions.

The hope here is, through the actions of the RFP-EZ team, to create a process and a prototype that the government can much more easily procure solutions from innovative private firms.

It A) opens up this emerging market called "the government" to high-tech startups and B) infects the government with more of their solutions, which are radically more, pound for pound, effective and cost efficient than a lot of the stuff that the government is currently procuring through conventional channels. That's RFP-EZ.

The 20% Campaign

Park: The 20% Campaign is a project that's being championed by USAID. It's an effort at USAID to, working with other government agencies, NGOs and companies, to catalog the movement of foreign assistance payments from cash to electronics. So, just for example, USAID pays its contractors electronically, obviously, but the contractor who, say, pays highway workers in Afghanistan or the way that police officers get paid in Afghanistan is actually principally via cash. Or has been. And that creates all kinds of waste issues, fraud, and abuse.

The idea is actually to move to electronic payment, including mobile payment — and this has the potential to significantly cut waste, fraud and abuse, to improve financial inclusion, to actually let people on phones, to enable them to access bank accounts set up for them. That leads to all kinds of good things, including safety: it's not ideal to be carrying around large amounts of cash in highly kinetic environments.

The Afghan National Police started paying certain contingents of police officers via mobile phones and mobile payments, as opposed to cash, and what happened is that the police officers started reporting an up to a 30% raise. Of course, their pay hadn't changed, but basically, when it was in cash, a bunch of it got lost. This is obviously a good thing, but it's even more important if you realize that when they were paid what they were paid in cash that they ultimately physically received, that was less than the Taliban in this province was actually paying people to join the Taliban — but the mobile payment, and that level of salary, was greater than the Taliban was paying. That's a critical difference.

It's basically taking foreign assistance payments through the last mile to mobile.

MyGov is the U.S. version of Gov.uk

Park: MyGov is an effort to rapidly prototype a citizen-centric system that allows Americans the information and resources of government that are right for them. Think of it as a personalized channel for Americans to be able to access information resources across government and get feedback from citizens about those information and resources.

How do you plan to scale what you learned while you were HHS CTO to the all of the federal government?

Park: Specifically, we're doing exactly the same thing we did with the Health Data Initiative, kicking off the initiatives with a "data jam" — an ideation workshop where we invite, just like with health data, 40 amazing tech and energy minds, tech and safety innovators, to a room — at the White House, in the case of the Safety Data Initiative, or at Stanford University, in the case of the Energy Initiative.

We walk into the room for several hours and say, "Here's a big pile of data. What would you do with this data?" And they invent 15 or 20 news classes of products or services of the future that we could build with the data. And then we challenge them to, at the end of the session, build prototypes or actual working products, that instantiates their ideas in 90 days, to be highlighted at a White House — hosted Safety Datapalooza, Energy Datapalooza, Education Datapalooza, Impact Datapalooza, etc.

We also take the intellectual capital from the workshops, publish it on the White House website, and publicize the opportunity around the country: Discover the data, come up with your own ideas, build prototypes, and throw your hat in the ring to showcase at a Datapalooza.

What happens at the Datapaloozas — our experience in health guides us — is that, first of all, the prototypes and working products inspire many more innovators to actually build new services, products and features, because the data suddenly becomes really concrete to them, in terms of how it could be used.

Secondly, it helps persuade additional folks in the government to liberate more data, making it available, making it machine-readable, as opposed to saying, "Look, I don't know what the upside is. I can only imagine downsides." What happened in health is, when they went to a Datapalooza, they actually saw that, if data is made available, then at no cost to you and no cost to taxpayers, other people who are very smart will build incredible things that actually enhance your mission. And so you should do the same.

As more data gets liberated, that then leads to more products and services getting built, which then inspires more data liberation, which then leads to more products and services getting built — so you have a virtual spiral, like what's happened in health.

The objective of each of these initiatives is not just to liberate data. Data by itself isn't helpful. You can't eat data. You can't pour data on a wound and heal it. You can't pour data on your house and make it more energy efficient. Data is only useful if it's applied to deliver benefit. The whole point of this exercise, the whole point of these kickoff efforts, is to catalyze the development of an ecosystem of data supply and data use to improve the lives of Americans in very tangible ways — and create jobs.

We have the developers and the suppliers of data actually talk to each other, create value for the American people, and then rinse, wash, repeat.

We're recruiting, to join the team of Presidential Innovation Fellows, entrepreneurs and developers from the outside to come in and help with this effort to liberate data, make it machine-readable, and get it out there to entrepreneurs and help catalyze development of this ecosystem.

We went to TechCrunch Disrupt for a reason: it's right smack dab center in the middle of people we want to recruit. We invite people to check out the projects on WhiteHouse.gov and, if you're interested in applying to be a fellow, indicate their interest. Even if they can't come to DC for 6-plus months to be a fellow, but they want to follow one of the projects or contribute or help in some way, we are inviting them express interest in that as well. For example, if you're an entrepreneur, and you're really interested in the education space, and learning about what data is available in education, you can check out the project, look at the data, and perhaps you can build something really good to show at the Education Datapalooza.

Is open data just about government data? What about smart disclosure?

Park: In the context of the Open Data Initiatives projects, it's not just about liberation of government health data: it's also about government catalyzing the release, on a voluntary basis, of private sector data.

Obviously, scaling Blue Button will extend the open data ecosystem. We're also doubling down on Green Button. I was just in California to host discussions around Green Button. Utilities representing 31 million households and businesses have now committed to make Green Button happen. Close to 10 million households and businesses already have access to Green Button data.

There's also a whole bunch of conversation happening about, at some point later this year, having the first utilities add the option of what we're calling "Green Button Connect." Right now, the Green Button is a download, where you go to a website, hit a green button and bam, you download your data. Green Button Connect is the ability for you to say as a consumer, "I authorize this third party to receive a continuous feed of my electricity usage data."

That creates massive additional opportunity for new products and services. That could go live later this year.

As part of the education data initiative, we are pursuing the launch and scale up of something called "My Data," which will have a red color button. (It will probably, ultimately, be called "Red Button.") This is the ability for students and their families to download an electronic copy of their student loan data, of their transcript data, of their academic assessment data.

That notion of people getting their own data, whether it's your health data, your education data, your finance data, your energy use data, that's an important part of these open data initiatives as well, with government helping to catalyze the release of that data to then feed the ecosystem.

How does open data specifically relate to the things that Americans care about, access to healthcare, reducing energy bills, giving their kids more educational opportunities, and job creation? Is this just about apps?

Park: In healthcare, for example, you'll see a growing array of examples that leverage data to create tangible benefit in many, many ways for Americans. Everything from helping me find the right doctor or hospital for my family to being notified of a clinical trial that could assist my profile and save my life, and the ability to get the latest and greatest information about how to manage my asthma and diabetes via government knowledge in the National Library of Medicine.

There is a whole shift in healthcare systems away from pay-for-volume of services to basically paying to get people healthy. It goes by lots of different names — accountable care organizations or episodic payment — but the fundamental common theme is that the doctors and hospitals increasingly will be paid to keep people healthy and to co-ordinate their care, and keep them out of the hospital, and out of the ER.

There's a whole fleet of companies and services that utilize data to help doctors and hospitals do that work, like utilize Medicare claims data to help identity segments of a patient population that are at real risk, and need to get to the ER or hospital soon. There are tools that help journalists identify easily public health issues, like healthcare outcomes disparities by race, gender and ethnicity. There are tools that help country commissioners and mayors understand what's going on in a community, from a health standpoint, and make better policy decisions, like showing them food desserts. There's just a whole fleet of rapidly growing services for consumers, for doctors, nurses, journalists, employers, public policy makers, that help them make decisions, help them deliver improved health and healthcare, and create jobs, all at the same time.

That's very exciting. If you look at all of those products and services — and a subset of them are the ones that self-identify to us, to actually be exhibited at the Health Datapaloozas. Look at the 20 healthcare apps that were at the first Datapalooza or the 50 that were at the second. This year, there are 230 companies that are being narrowed down to about a total of 100 that will be at the Datapalooza. They collectively serve millions of people today, either through brand new products and services or through new features on existing platforms. They help people in ways that we would never have thought of, let alone build.

The taxpayer dollars expended here were zero. We basically just took our data, made it available in machine-readable format, educated entrepreneurs that it was there, and they did the rest. Think about these other sectors, and think about what's possible in those sectors.

In education, through making the data that we've made available, you can imagine much better tools to help you shop for the college that will deliver the biggest bang for your buck and is the best fit for your situation.

We've actually made available a bunch of data about college outcomes and are making more data available in machine-readable form so it can feed college search tools much better. We are going to be enabling students to download machine-readable copies of their own financial aid application, student loan data and school records. That will really turbo charge "smart scholarship" and school search capabilities for those students. You can actually mash that up with college outcomes in a really powerful, personalized college and scholarship search engine that is enabled by your personal data plus machine-readable data. Tools that help kids and their parents pick the right college for their education and get the right financial aid, that's something government is going to facilitate.

In the energy space, there are apps and services that help you leverage your Green Button data and other data to really assess your electricity usage compared to that of others and get concrete tips on how you can actually save yourself money. We're already seeing very clever, very cool efforts to integrate gamification and social networking into that kind of app, to make it a lot more fun and engaging — and make yourself money.

One dataset that's particularly spectacular that we're making a lot more usable is the EnergyStar database. It's got 40,000 different appliances, everything from washing machines to servers that consumers and businesses use. We are creating a much, much easier to use public, downloadable NSTAR database. It's got really detailed information on the energy use profiles and performance of each of these 40,000 appliances and devices. Imagine that actually integrated into much smarter services.

On safety, the kinds of ideas that people are bringing together are awesome. They're everything from using publicly available safety data to plot the optimal route for your kid to walk home or for a first responder to travel through a city and get to a place most expeditiously.

There's this super awesome resource on Data.gov called the "Safer Products API," which is published by the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC). Consumers send in safety reports to CPSC, but until March of last year, you had to FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] CPSC to get these. So what they've now done is actually publish an API which not only makes the entire database of these reports public, without you having to FOIA them, but also makes it available through an API.

One of the ideas that came up is that, when people buy products on eBay, Craiglist, etc, all the time, some huge percentage of Americans never get to know about a recall — a recall of a crib, a recall of a toy. And even when a company recalls new products, old products are in circulation. What if someone built the ability to integrate the recall data and attach it to all the stuff in the eBays and Craigslists of the world?

Former CIO Vivek Kundra often touted government recall apps based upon government data during his tenure. Is this API the same thing, shared again, or something new?

Park: I think the smartest thing the government can do with data like product recalls data is not build our own shopping sites, or our own product information sites: it's to get the information out there in machine-readable form, so that lots and lots of other platforms that have audiences with millions of people already, and who are really good at creating shopping experiences or product comparison experiences, get the data into their hands, so that they can integrate it seamlessly into what they do. I feel that that's really the core play that the government should be engaged in.

I don't know if the Safer Products API was included in the recall app. What I do know is that before 2011, you had to FOIA to get the data. I think that even if the government included it in some app the government built, that it's important for it to get used by lots and lots of other apps that have a collective audience that's massively greater than any app the government could itself build.

Another example of this is the Hospital Compare website. The Hospital Compare website has been around for a long time. Nobody knows about it. There was a survey done that found 94% of Americans didn't know that there was hospital quality data that was available, let alone that there was a hospital compare website. So, the notion of A) making the hospital care data downloadable and B), we actually deployed it a year and a half ago in API form at Medicare.gov.

That then makes the data much easier for lots of other platforms to incorporate it, that are far more likely than HospitalCompare.gov to be able to present the information in actionable forms for citizens. Even if we build our own apps, we have to get this data out to lots of other people that can help people with it. To do that, we have to make it machine-readable, we have to put it into RESTFUL APIs — or at least make it downloadable — and get the word out to entrepreneurs that it's something they can use.

This is a stunning arbitrage opportunity. Even if you take all this data and you "API-ize" it, it's not automatic that entrepreneurs are going to know it's there.

Let's assume that the hospital quality data is good — which it is — and that you build it, and put it into an API. If nobody knows about it, you've delivered no value to the American people. People don't care whether you API a bunch of data. What they care about is that when they need to find a hospital, like I did, for my baby, I can get that information.

The private sector, in the places where we have pushed the pedal to the medal on this, has just demonstrated the incredible ability to make this data a lot more relevant and help a lot more people with it than we could have by ourselves.

White House photo used on associated home and category pages: white house by dcJohn, on Flickr

April 10 2012

Open source is interoperable with smarter government at the CFPB

CFPBWhen you look at the government IT landscape of 2012, federal CIOs are being asked to address a lot of needs. They have to accomplish your mission. They need to be able to scale initiatives to tens of thousands of agency workers. They're under pressure to address not just network security but web security and mobile device security. They also need to be innovative, because all of this is supported by the same of less funding. These are common requirements in every agency.

As the first federal "start-up agency" in a generation, some of those needs at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) are even more pressing. On the other hand, the opportunity for the agency to be smarter, leaner and "open from the beginning" is also immense.

Progress establishing the agency's infrastructure and culture over the first 16 months has been promising, save for larger context of getting a director at the helm. Enabling open government by design isn't just a catchphrase at the CFPB. There has been a bold vision behind the CFPB from the outset, where a 21st century regulator would leverage new technologies to find problems in the economy before the next great financial crisis escalates.

In the private sector, there's great interest right now is finding actionable insight in large volumes of data. Making sense of big data is increasingly being viewed as a strategic imperative in the public sector as well. Recently, the White House put its stamp on that reality with a $200 million big data research and development initiative, including a focus on improving the available tools. There's now an entire ecosystem of software around Hadoop, which is itself open source code. The problem that now exists in many organizations, across the public and private sector, is not so much that the technology to manipulate big data isn't available: it's that the expertise to apply big data doesn't exist in-house. The data science talent shortage is real.

People who work and play in the open source community understand the importance of sharing code, especially when that action leads to improving the code base. That's not necessarily an ethic or a perspective that has been pervasive across the federal government. That does seem to be slowly changing, with leadership from the top: the White House used Drupal for its site and has since contributed modules back into the open source community, including one that helps with 508 compliance.

In an in-person interview last week, CFPB CIO Chris Willey (@ChrisWilleyDC) and acting deputy CIO Matthew Burton (@MatthewBurton) sat down to talk about the agency's new open source policy, government IT, security, programming in-house, the myths around code-sharing, and big data.

The fact that this government IT leadership team is strongly supportive of sharing code back to the open source community is probably the most interesting part of this policy, as Scott Merrill picked up in his post on the CFPB and Github.

Our interview follows.

In addition to being the leader of the CFPB's development team over the past year and half, Burton was just named acting deputy chief information officer. What will that mean?

Willey: He hasn't been leading the software development team the whole time. In fact, we only really had an org chart as of October. In the time that he's been here, Matt has led his team to some amazing things. We're going to talk about a one of them today, but we've also got a great intranet. We've got some great internal apps that are being built and that we've built. We've unleashed one version of the supervision system that helps bank examiners do their work in the field. We've got a lot of faith he's going to do great things.

What it actually means is that he's going to be backing me up as CIO. Even though we're a fairly small organization, we have an awful lot going on. We have 76 active IT projects, for example. We're just building a team. We're actually doubling in size this fiscal year, from about 35 staff to 70, as well as adding lots of contractors. We're just growing the whole pie. We've got 800 people on board now. We're going to have 1,100 on board in the whole bureau by the end of the fiscal year. There's a lot happening, and I recognize we need to have some additional hands and brain cells helping me out.

With respect to building an internal IT team, what's the thinking behind having technical talent inside of an agency like this one? What does that change, in terms of your relationship with technology and your capacity to work?

Burton: I think it's all about experimentation. Having technical people on staff allows an organization to do new things. I think the way most agencies work is that when they have a technical need, they don't have the technical people on staff to make it happen so instead, that need becomes larger and larger until it justifies the contract. And by then, the problem is very difficult to solve.

By having developers and designers in-house, we can constantly be addressing things as they come up. In some cases, before the businesses even know it's a problem. By doing that, we're constantly staying ahead of the curve instead of always reacting to problems that we're facing.

How do you use open source technology to accomplish your mission? What are the tools you're using now?

Willey: We're actually trying to use open source in every aspect of what we do. It's not just in software development, although that's been a big focus for us. We're trying to do it on the infrastructure side as well.

As we look at network and system monitoring, we look at the tools that help us manage the infrastructure. As I've mentioned in the past, we are 100% in the cloud today. Open source has been a big help for us in giving us the ability to manipulate those infrastructures that we have out there.

At the end of the day, we want to bring in the tools that make the most sense for the business needs. It's not about only selecting open source or having necessarily a preference for open source.

What we've seen is that over time, the open source marketplace has matured. A lot of tools that might not have been ready for prime time a year ago or two years ago are today. By bringing them into the fold, we potentially save money. We potentially have systems that we can extend. We could more easily integrate with the other things that we have inside the shop that maybe we built or maybe things that we've acquired through other means. Open source gives us a lot of flexibility because there's a lot of opportunities to do things that we might not be able to do with some proprietary software.

Can you share a couple of specific examples of open source tools that you're using and what you actually use them for within mission?

Willey: On network monitoring, for example, we're using ZFS, which is an open source monitoring tool. We've been working with Nagios as well. Nagios, we actually inherited from Treasury — and while Treasury's not necessarily known for its use of open source technologies, it uses that internally for network monitoring. Splunk is another one that we have been using for web analysis. [After the interview, Burton and Willey also shared that they built the CFPB's intranet on MediaWiki, the software that drives Wikipedia.]

Burton: On the development side, we've invested a lot in Django and WordPress. Our site is a hybrid of them. It's WordPress at its core, with Django on top of that.

In November of 2010, it was actually a few weeks before I started here, Merici [Vinton] called me and said, "Matt, what should we use for our website?"

And I said, "Well, what's it going to do?"

And she said, "At first, it's going to be a blog with a few pages."

And this website needed to be up and running by February. And there was no hosting; there was nothing. There were no developers.

So I said, "Use WordPress."

And by early February, we had our website up. I'm not sure that would have been possible if we had to go through a lengthy procurement process for something not open source.

We use a lot of jQuery. We use Linux servers. For development ops, we use Selenium and Jenkins and Git to manage our releases and source code. We actually have GitHub Enterprise, which although not open source, is very sharing-focused. It encourages sharing internally. And we're using GitHub on the public side to share our code. It's great to have the same interface internally as we're using externally.

Developers and citizens alike can go to github.com/cfpb and see code that you've released back to the public and for other federal agencies. What projects are there?

Burton: These are the ones that came up between basic building blocks. They range from code that may not strike an outside developer as that interesting but that's really useful for the government, all the way to things that we created from scratch that are very developer-focused and are going to be very useful for any developer.

On the first side of that spectrum, there's an app that we made for transit subsidy involvement. Treasury used to manage our transit subsidy balances. That involved going to a webpage that you would print out, write into with a pen and then fax to someone.

Willey: Or scan and email it.

Burton: Right. And then once you'd had your supervisor sign it, faxed it over to someone, eventually, several weeks later, you would get your benefits. We started to take over that process and the human resources office came to us and asked, "How can we do this better?"

Obviously, that should just be a web form that you type into, that will auto fill any detail it knows about you. You press submit and it goes into the database, which goes directly to the DOT [Department of Transportation]. So that's what we made. We demoed that for DOT and they really like it. USAID is also into it. It's encouraging to see that something really simple could prove really useful for other agencies.

On the other side of the spectrum, we use a lot of Django tools. As an example, we have a tool we just released through our website called "Ask CFPB." It's a Django-based question and answer tool, with a series of questions and answers.

Now, the content is managed in Django. All of the content is managed from our staging server behind the firewall. When we need to get that content, we need to get the update from staging over to production.

Before, what we had to do was pick up the entire database, copy it and them move it over to production, which was kind of a nightmare. And there was no Django tool for selectively moving data modifications.

So we sat there and we thought, "Oh, we really need something to do that because we're going to be doing a lot of that. We can't be copying the database over every time we need to correct a copy. So two of our developers developed a Django app called "Nudge." Basically, you go into a Django and if you've ever seen a Django admin, you just go into it and assess, "Hey, here's everything that's changed. What do you want to move over?"

You can pick and choose what you want to move over and, with the click of a button, it goes to production. I think that's something that every Django developer will have a use for if they have a staging server.

In a way, we were sort of surprised it didn't exist. So, we needed it. We built it. Now we're giving it back and anybody in the world can use it.

You mentioned the cloud. I know that CFPB is very associated with Treasury. Are you using Treasury's FISMA moderate cloud?

Willey: We have a mix of what I would say are private and public clouds. On the public side, we're using our own cloud environments that we have established. On the private side, we are using Treasury for some of our apps. We're slowly migrating off of treasury systems onto our own cloud infrastructure or our own cloud.

In the case of email, for example, we're looking at email as a service. So we'll be looking at Google, Microsoft and others just to see what's out there and what we might be able to use.

Why is it important for the CFPB to share code back to the public? And who else in the federal government has done something like this, aside from the folks at the White House?

Burton:: We see it the same way that we believe the rest of the open source community sees it: The only way this stuff is going to get better and become more viable is if people share. Without that, then it'll only be hobbyists. It'll only be people who build their own little personal thing. Maybe it's great. Maybe it's not. Open source gets better by the community actually contributing to it. So it's self-interest in a lot of ways. If the tools get better, then what we have available to us is, therefore, gets better. We can actually do our mission better.

Using the transit subsidy enrollment application example, it's also an opportunity for government to help itself, for one agency to help another. We've created this thing. Every federal agency has a transit subsidy program. They all need to allow people to enroll in it. Therefore, it's immediately useful to any other agency in the federal government. That's just a matter of government improving its own processes.

If one group does it, why should another group have to figure it out or have to pay lots of money to have it figured out? Why not just share it internally and then everybody benefits?

Why do you think it's taken until 2012 to have that insight actually be made into reality in terms of a policy?

Burton: I think to some degree, the tools have changed. The ability to actually do this easily is a lot better now than it was even a year or two ago. Government also traditionally lags behind the private sector in a lot of ways. I think that's changing, too. With this administration in particular, I think what we've seen is that government has started to become a little bit on parity with the private sector, including some of the thinking around how to use technology to improve business processes. That's really exciting. And I think as a result, there are a lot of great people coming in as developers and designers who want to work in the federal government because they see that change.

Willey: It's also because we're new. There are two things behind that. First, we're able to sort of craft a technology philosophy with a modern perspective. So we can, from our founding, ask "What is the right way to do this?" Other agencies, if they want to do this, have to turn around decades of culture. We don't have that burden. I think that's a big reason why we're able to do this.

The second thing is a lot of agencies don't have the intense need that we do. We have 76 projects to do. We have to use every means available to us.

We can't say, "We're not going to use a large share of the software that's available to us." That's just not an option. We have to say, "Yes, we will consider this as a commercial good, just like any other piece of proprietary software."

In terms of the broader context for technology and policy, how does open source relate to open government?

Willey: When I was working for the District, Apps for Democracy was a big contest that we did around opening data and then asking developers to write applications using that data that could then be used by anybody. We said that the next logical step was to sort of create more participatory government. And in my mind, open sourcing the projects that we do is a way of asking the citizenry to participate in the active government.

So by putting something in the public space, somebody could pick that up. Maybe not the transit subsidy enrollment project — but maybe some other project that we've put out there that's useful outside of government as well as inside of government. Somebody can pick that code up, contribute to it and then we benefit. In that way, the public is helping us make government better.

When you have conversations around open source in government, what do you say about what it means to put your code online and to have people look at it or work on it? Can you take changes that people make to the code base to improve it and then use it yourself?

Willey: Everything that we put out there will be reviewed by our security team. The goal is that, by the time it's out there, not to have any security vulnerabilities. If someone does discover a security vulnerability, however, we'll be sharing that code in a way that makes it much more likely that someone will point it out to us and maybe even provide a fix than they will exploit it because it's out there. They wouldn't be exploiting our instance of the code; they would be working with the code on Github.com.

I've seen people in government with a misperception of what open source means. They hear that it's code that anyone can contribute to. I think that they don't understand that you're controlling your own instance of it. They think that anyone can come along and just write anything into your code that they like. And, of course, it's not like that.

I think as we talk more and more about this to other agencies, we might run into that, but I think it'll be good to have strong advocates in government, especially on the security side, who can say, "No, that's not the case; it doesn't work that way."

Burton: We have a firewall between our public and private instances at Git as well. So even if somebody contributes code, that's also reviewed on the way in. We wouldn't implement it unless we made sure that, from a security perspective, the code was not malicious. We're taking those precautions as well.

I can't point to one specifically, but I know that there have been articles and studies done on the relative security of open source. I think the consensus in the industry is that the peer review process of open source actually helps from a security perspective. It's not that you have a chaos of people contributing code whenever they want to. It improves the process. It's like the thinking behind academic papers. You do peer review because it enhances the quality of the work. I think that's true for open source as well.

We actually want to create a community of peer reviewers of code within the federal government. As we talk to agencies, we want people to actually use the stuff we build. We want them to contribute to it. We actually want them to be a community. As each agency contributes things, the other agencies can actually review that code and help each other from that perspective as well.

It's actually fairly hard. As we build more projects, it's going to put a little bit of a strain on our IT security team, doing an extra level of scrutiny to make sure that the code going out is safe. But the only way to get there is to grow that pie. And I think by talking with other agencies, we'll be able to do that.

A classic open source koan is that "with many eyes, all bugs become shallow." In IT security, is it that with many eyes, all worms become shallow?

Burton: What the Department of Defense said was if someone has malicious intent and the code isn't available, they'll have some way of getting the code. But if it is available and everyone has access to it, then any vulnerabilities that are there are much more likely to be corrected than before they're exploited.

How do you see open source contributing to your ability to get insights from large amounts of data? If you're recruiting developers, can they actually make a difference in helping their fellow citizens?

Burton: It's all about recruiting. As we go out and we bring on data people and software developers, we're looking for that kind of expertise. We're looking for people that have worked with PostgreSQL. We're looking for people that have worked with Solar. We're looking for people that have worked with Hadoop, because then we can start to build that expertise in-house. Those tools are out there.

R is an interesting example. What we're finding is that as more people are coming out of academia into the professional world, they're actually used to using R in school. And then they have to come out and learn a different tool and they're actually working in the marketplace.

It's similar with the Mac versus the PC. You get people using the Mac in college — and suddenly they have to go to a Windows interface. Why impose that on them? If they're going to be extremely productive with a tool like R, why not allow that to be used?

We're starting to see, in some pockets of the bureau, push from the business side to actually use some of these tools, which is great. That's another change I think that's happened in the last couple of years.

Before, there would've been big resistance on that kind of thing. Now that we're getting pushed a little bit, we have to respond to that. We also think it's worth it that we do.

Related:

Carsharing saves U.S. city governments millions in operating costs

One of the most dynamic sectors of the sharing economy is the trend in large cities toward more collaborative consumption — and the entrepreneurs have followed, from Airbnb to Getable to Freecycle. Whether it's co-working, bike sharing, exchanging books and videos, or cohabiting hackerspaces and community garden spaces, there are green shoots throughout the economy that suggest the way we work, play and learn is changing due to the impact of connection technologies and the Great Recession.

This isn't just about the classic dilemma of "buy vs. rent." It's about whether people or organizations can pool limited resources to more efficiently access tools or services as needed and then pass them back into a commons, if appropriate.

Speaking to TechCrunch last year, Lauren Anderson floated the idea that a collaborative consumption revolution might be as "significant as the Industrial Revolution." We'll see about that. The new sharing economy is clearly a powerful force, as a recent report (PDF) by Latitude Research and Shareable Magazine highlighted, but it's not clear yet if it's going to transform society and production in the same way that industrialized mass production did in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Opportunity Infographic - The New Sharing Economy Study by latddotcom, on Flickr
Infographic from "The New Sharing Economy" study. Read the report (PDF) and see a larger version of this image.

Carsharing is saving

What is clear is that, after years of spreading through the private sector, collaborative consumption is coming to government, and it's making a difference. A specific example: Carsharing via Zipcar in city car fleets is saving money and enabling government to increase its efficacy and decrease its use of natural resources.

After finally making inroads into cities, Zipcar is saving taxpayers real money in the public sector. Technology developed by the car-sharing startup is being used in 10 cities and municipalities in 2012. If data from a pilot with the United States General Services Agency fleet pans out, the technology could be also adopted across the sprawling federal agency's vehicles, saving tens of millions of dollars of operating expenses though smarter use of new technology.

"Now the politics are past, the data are there," said Michael Serafino, general manager for Zipcar's university and FastFleet programs, in a phone interview. "Collaborative consumption isn't so difficult from other technology. We're all used to networked laser printers. The car is just a tool to do business. People are starting to come around to the idea that it can be shared."

As with many other city needs, vehicle fleet management in the public sector shares commonalities across all cities. In every case, municipal governments need to find a way to use the vehicles that the city owns more efficiently to save scarce funds.

The FastFleet product has been around for a little more than three years, said Serafino. Zipcar started it in beta and then took a "methodical approach" to rolling it out.

FastFleet uses the same mechanism that's used throughout thousands of cars in the Zipcar fleet: a magnetized smartcard paired with a card reader in the windshield that can communicate with a central web-based reservation system.

There's a one-time setup charge to get a car wired for the system and then a per-month charge for the FastFleet service. The cost of that installation varies, predicated upon the make of vehicles, type of vehicles and tech that goes into them. Zipcar earns its revenue in a model quite similar to cloud computing and software-as-a-service, where operational costs are billed based upon usage.

Currently, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Santa Cruz, Calif., Boston, New York and Wilmington, Del. are all using FastFleet to add carsharing capabilities to their fleets, with more cities on the way. (Zipcar's representative declined to identify which municipalities are next.)

Boston's pilot cut its fleet in half

"Lots of cities have departments where someone occasionally needs a car," said Matthew Mayrl, chief of staff in the Boston Public Works department, during a phone interview.

"They buy one and then use it semi-frequently, maybe one to two times per week. But they do need it, so they can't give up the car. That means it's not being used for highest utilization."

The utilization issue is the key pain point, in terms of both efficiency and cost. Depending on the make and model, it generally costs between $3,000 and $7,000 on average for a municipality to operate a vehicle, said Serafino. "Utilization is about 30% in most municipal fleets," he said.

That's where collaborative consumption became to relevant to Boston. Mayrl said Boston's Public Works Department talked to Zipcar representatives with two goals in mind: get out of a manual reservation system and reduce the number of cars the city uses, which would reduce costs in the process. "Our public works was, for a long time, administered by a city motor pool," Mayrl said. "It was pretty old school: stop by, get keys, borrow a car."

While Boston did decide to join up with Zipcar, public sector workers aren't using actual Zipcars. The city has licensed Zipcar's FastFleet technology and is adding it to the existing fleet.

One benefit to using just the tech is that it can be integrated with cars that are already branded with the "City of Boston," pointed out Mayrl. That's crucial when the assessing office is visiting a household, he said: In that context, it's important to be identified.

Boston started a pilot in February that was rolled out to existing users of public works vehicles, along with two pilots in assessing and the Department of Motor Vehicles. The program started by taking the oldest cars off the road and training the relevant potential drivers. Using carsharing, the city of Boston was able to reduce the number of vehicles in the pilot by over 50%.

"Previously, there were 28 cars between DPW [the Public Works department] and those elsewhere in the department," said Mayrl. "That's been cut in half. Now we have 12 to 14 cars without any missed reservations. This holds a lot of promise, only a month in. We don't have to worry about maintenance or whether someone is parked in the wrong place or cleaning snow off a car. We hope that if this is successful, we can roll it out to other departments."

The District's fleet gets leaner

While a 50% reduction in fleet size looks like significant cost savings, Serafino said that a 2:1 ratio is actually a conservative number.

"We strive for 3:1," Serafino said. "The one thing we have is data. We capture and gather data from every single use of every single vehicle by every single driver, at a very granular level, including whenever a driver gets in and out. That allows a city to measure real utilization and efficiency. Using those numbers, officials can drive policy and other things. You can take effective utilization and real utilization and say, 'we're taking away these four cars from this area.' You can use hard data gathered by the system to make financial and efficiency decisions."

Based upon the results to date, Serafino said he expects Washington, DC, to triple its investment in the system. "The original pilot was started by a mandated reduction by [former DC Mayor Adrian] Fenty, who said 'make this goal,' and 'get it done by this date.' Overall, DC went from 365 to 80 vehicles by consolidating and cooperating."

Serafino estimated the reduction represents about 50% of the opportunity for DC to save money. "The leader of the DC Department of Public Works wants to do more," he said. "The final plans are to get to a couple of hundred vehicles under management, resulting in another reduction by at least 200 cars." Serafino estimated potential net cost savings would be north of $1 million per year.

There is a floor, however, for how lean a city's car fleet can become — and a ceiling for optimal utilization as well.

"The more you reduce, the harder it gets," said Serafino. "DC may have gone too far, by going down to 80 [vehicles]. It has hurt mobility." If you cut into fat deep enough, in other words, eventually you hit muscle and bone.

"DC is passing 70% utilization on a per-day basis," said Serafino. "They have three to four people using each of the cars every day. The trip profile, in the government sense, is different from other customers. We don't expect to go over 80%. There is a point where you can get too lean. DC has kind of gotten there now."

In Boston, Mayrl said they did a financial analysis of how to reduce costs from their car fleet. "It was cheaper to better manage the cars we have than to buy new ones. Technology helps us do that. [Carsharing] had already been done in a couple of other cities. Chicago does it. The city of DC does it. We went to a competitive bid for an online vehicle fleet management software system. [Zipcar] was the only respondent."

Given that FastFleet has been around for more than three years and there's a strong business case for employing the technology, the rate of adoption by American cities might seem to be a little slow to outside observers. What would be missing from that analysis are the barriers to entry for startups that want to compete in the market for government services.

"What hit us was the sales cycle," said Zipcar's Serafino. "The average is about 18 months to two years on city deals. That's why they're all popping now, with more announcements to come soon."

The problem, Serafino mused, was not making the case for potential cost savings. "Cities will only act as sensitive as politics will allow," said Serafino.

"Boston, San Francisco, New York and Chicago are trying. The problem is the automotive and vehicle culture," Serafino said. "That, combined with the financial aspects of decentralized budgeting for fleets, is the bane of fleet managers. Most automotive fleet managers in cities don't control their own destinies. Chicago is one of the very few cities where they can control the entire fleet.

Cities do have other options to use technology to manage their car fleets, from telematics providers to GPS devices to web-based reservation systems, each of which may be comparatively less expensive to buy off the shelf.

One place that Zipcar will continue to face competition at the local level is from companies that provide key vending machines, which are essentially automated devices on garage walls.

"You go get a key and go to a car," said Serafino. "If you have 20 cars in one location, it's not as likely to make sense to choose our system. If you have 50 cars in three locations, that's a different context. You can't just pick up a keybox and move it."

Collaborative consumption goes federal?

Zipcar is continuing along the long on-ramp to working with government. The next step for the company may be to help Uncle Sam with the federal government's car fleet.

As noted previously, the U.S. General Services Agency (GSA) has already done a collaborative consumption pilot using part of its immense vehicle fleet. Serafino says the GSA is now using that data to prepare a broader procurement action for a request for proposals.

The scale for potential cost savings is significant: The GSA manages some 210,000 vehicles, including a small but growing number of electric vehicles.

Given congressional pressure to find cost savings in the federal budget, if the GSA can increase the utilization of its fleet in a way that's even vaguely comparable to the savings that cities are finding, collaborative consumption could become quite popular in Congress.

If carsharing at the federal level succeeded similarly well at scale, members of Congress and staff that became familiar with collaborative consumption through the wildly popular Capital bike sharing program may well see the sharing economy in a new light.

"There's a broader international trend to work to share resources more efficiently, from energy to physical infrastructure," said Mayrl. "Like every good city, we're copying the successful stuff elsewhere."

Related:

April 09 2012

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau shares code built for the people with the people

Editor's Note: This guest post is written by Matthew Burton, the acting deputy chief information officer of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (@CFPB). The quiet evolution in government IT has been a long road, with many forks. In the original version of this piece, published on the CFPB's blog, Burton needed to take the time to explain what open source software is because many people in government and citizens in the country still don't understand it, unlike readers here at Radar. That's why the post below includes a short section outlining the basics of open source. — Alex Howard.


The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) was fortunate to be born in the digital era. We've been able to rethink many of the practices that make financial products confusing to consumers and certain regulations burdensome for businesses. We've also been able to launch the CFPB with a state-of-the-art technical infrastructure that's more stable and more cost-effective than an equivalent system was just 10 years ago.

Many of the things we're doing are new to government, which has made them difficult to achieve. But the hard part lies ahead. While our current technology is great, those of us on the CFPB's Technology & Innovation team will have failed if we're still using the same tools 10 years from now. Our goal is not to tie the Bureau to 2012's technology, but to create something that stays modern and relevant — no matter the year.

Good internal technology policies can help, especially the policy that governs our use of software source code. We are unveiling that policy today.

Source code is the set of instructions that tells software how to work. This is distinct from data, which is the content that a user inputs into the software. Unlike data, most users never see software source code; it works behind the scenes while the users interact with their data through a more intuitive, human-friendly interface.

Some software lets users modify its source code, so that they can tweak the code to achieve their own goals if the software doesn't specifically do what users want. Source code that can be freely modified and redistributed is known as "open-source software," and it has been instrumental to the CFPB's innovation efforts for a few reasons:

  • It is usually very easy to acquire, as there are no ongoing licensing fees. Just pay once, and the product is yours.
  • It keeps our data open. If we decide one day to move our website to another platform, we don't have to worry about whether the current platform is going to keep us from exporting all of our data. (Only some proprietary software keeps its data open, but all open source software does so.)
  • It lets us use tailor-made tools without having to build those tools from scratch. This lets us do things that nobody else has ever done, and do them quickly.

Until recently, the federal government was hesitant to adopt open-source software due to a perceived ambiguity around its legal status as a commercial good. In 2009, however, the Department of Defense made it clear that open source software products are on equal footing with their proprietary counterparts.

We agree, and the first section of our source code policy is unequivocal: We use open-source software, and we do so because it helps us fulfill our mission.

Open-source software works because it enables people from around the world to share their contributions with each other. The CFPB has benefited tremendously from other people's efforts, so it's only right that we give back to the community by sharing our work with others.

This brings us to the second part of our policy: When we build our own software or contract with a third party to build it for us, we will share the code with the public at no charge. Exceptions will be made when source code exposes sensitive details that would put the Bureau at risk for security breaches; but we believe that, in general, hiding source code does not make the software safer.

We're sharing our code for a few reasons:

  • First, it is the right thing to do: the Bureau will use public dollars to create the source code, so the public should have access to that creation.
  • Second, it gives the public a window into how a government agency conducts its business. Our job is to protect consumers and to regulate financial institutions, and every citizen deserves to know exactly how we perform those missions.
  • Third, code sharing makes our products better. By letting the development community propose modifications , our software will become more stable, more secure, and more powerful with less time and expense from our team. Sharing our code positions us to maintain a technological pace that would otherwise be impossible for a government agency.

The CFPB is serious about building great technology. This policy will not necessarily make that an easy job, but it will make the goal achievable.

Our policy is available in three formats: HTML, for easy access; PDF, for good presentation; and as a GitHub Gist, which will make it easy for other organizations to adopt a similar policy and will allow the public to easily track any revisions we make to the policy.

If you're a coder, keep an eye on our GitHub account. We'll be releasing code for a few projects in the coming weeks.

Related:

April 06 2012

Four short links: 6 April 2012

  1. FBI Uses Agile (Information Week) -- The FBI awarded the original contract for the case management system to Lockheed Martin in 2006, but an impatient Fulgham, who was hired in 2008 to get the project on track, decided to bring it in house in September 2010. Since then, the agency has been using agile development to push the frequently delayed project across the finish line. The FBI's agile team creates a software build every two weeks, and the pre-launch system is now running Build 33. The agency is working on Build 36, comprised mainly of features that weren't part of the original RFP. Fulgham says the software is essentially done.
  2. Lucky Meat (Matt Webb) -- the man is a mad genius. If you believe "mad" and "genius" are opposite ends of a single dimension, then I will let you choose where to place this post on that continuum. Then when you choose your tea (or coffee), the liquid is shot as if through the barrel of a gun BANG directly at your face. We use facial recognition computer chips or something for this. It blasts, and splashes, as hard and fierce as possible. And then the tea (or coffee) is runs down the inside slope of the "V" and is channeled in and falls eventually into a cup at the bottom apex where it finally drips in. Then you have your drink. (But you don't need it, because you're already awake.)
  3. Quietly Awesome -- how are your hiring processes biased towards extroverts? See also I don't hire unlucky people.
  4. How We Will Read (Clive Thompson) -- Clive is my hero. I feel like we see all these articles that say, “This is what the e-book is,” and my response is always, “We have no idea what the e-book is like!” All these design things have yet to be solved and even thought about, and we have history of being really really good at figuring this out. If you think about the origins of the codex — first we started reading on scrolls. Scrolls just pile up, though. You can’t really organize them. Codexes made it easier to line them up on a shelf. But it also meant there were pages. It didn’t occur to them for some time to have page numbers, because the whole idea was that you only read a small number of books and you were going to read them over and over and over again. Once there were so many books that you were going to read a book once and maybe never again, it actually became important to consult the book and be able to find something inside it. So page numbers and indices became important. We look at books and we’re like, “They’re so well designed,” but it took centuries for them to become well-designed. So you look at e-books, and yeah, they’re alright, but they’re clearly horrible compared to what they’re going to be. I find it amazing that I can get this much pleasure out of them already. AMEN!

March 29 2012

Four short links: 29 March 2012

  1. Tricorder Project -- open sourced designs for a tricorder, released as part of the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize. (via Slashdot)
  2. Microsoft's New Open Sourced Stacks (Miguel de Icaza) -- not just open sourced (some of the code had been under MS Permissive License before, now it's Apache) but developed in public with git: ASP.NET MVC, ASP.NET Web API, ASP.NET Web Pages v2. The Azure SDK is also on github.
  3. In An Internet Age, Crime is Essential to Freedom (Donald Clark) -- when a criminal asks: "How do I secure payment and store my ill-gotten gains", somewhere else, a refugee asks: "How can I send funds back to a relative such that they can’t be traced to me".
  4. NSA: China Behind RSA Attacks (Information Week) -- I can argue both sides about whether government cloud services are a boon or a curse for remote information thieves. Looking forward to seeing how it plays out.

March 09 2012

OK, I Admit It. I have a mancrush on the new Federal CTO, Todd Park

I couldn't be more delighted by the announcement today that Todd Park has been named the new Chief Technology Officer for the United States, replacing Aneesh Chopra.

I first met Todd in 2008 at the urging of Mitch Kapor, who thought that Todd was the best exemplar in the healthcare world of my ideas about the power of data to transform business and society, and that I would find him to be a kindred spirit. And so it was. My lunch with Todd turned into a multi-hour brainstorm as we walked around the cliffs of Lands End in San Francisco. Todd was on fire with ideas about how to change healthcare, and the opportunity of the new job he'd just accepted, to become the CTO at HHS.

Subsequently, I helped Todd to organize a series of workshops and conferences at HHS to plan and execute their open data strategy. I met with Todd and told him how important it was not just to make data public and hope developers would come, but to actually do developer evangelism. I told him how various tech companies ran their developer programs, including some stories about Amazon's rollout of AWS: they had first held a small, private event to which they invited people and companies who'd been unofficially hacking on their data, told them their plans, and recruited them to build apps against the new APIs that were planned. Then, when they made their public announcement, they had cool apps to show, not just good intentions.

Todd immediately grasped the blueprint, and executed with astonishing speed. Before long, he held a workshop for an invited group of developers, entrepreneurs and health data wonks to map out useful data that could be liberated, and useful applications that could be built with it. Six months later, he held a public conference to showcase the 40-odd applications that had been developed. Now in its third year, the event has grown into what Todd calls the Health Datapalooza. As noted on GigaOm, the event has already led to several venture backed startup. (Applications are open for startups to be showcased at this year's event, June 5-6 in Washington D.C.)

Since I introduced him to Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, Todd has been introducing the methodology to Washington, insisting on programs that can show real results (learning and pivots) in only 90 days. He just knows how to make stuff happen.

Todd is also an incredibly inspiring speaker. At my various Gov 2.0 events, he routinely got a standing ovation. His enthusiasm, insight, and optimism are infectious.

Todd Park

When Todd Park talks, I listen. (Photo by James Duncan Davidson from the 2010 Gov 2.0 Summit. http://www.flickr.com/photos/oreillyconf/4967787323/in/photostream/)

Many will ask about Todd's technical credentials. After all, he is trained as a healthcare economist, not an engineer or scientist. There are three good answers:

1. Economists are playing an incredibly important role at today's technology companies, as extracting meaning and monetization from massive amounts of data become one of the key levers of success and competitive advantage. (Think Hal Varian at Google, working to optimize the ad auction.) Healthcare in particular is one of those areas where science, human factors, and economics are on a collision course, but virtually every sector of our nation is undergoing a transformation as a result of intelligence derived from data analysis. That's why I put Todd on my list for Forbes.com of the world's most important data scientists.

2. Todd is an enormously successful technology entrepreneur, with two brilliant companies - Athenahealth and Castlight Health - under his belt. In each case, he was able to succeed by understanding the power of data to transform an industry.

3. He's an amazing learner. In a 1998 interview describing the founding of Athena Health, he described his leadership philosophy: "Put enough of an idea together to inspire a team of really good people to jump with you into a general zone like medical practices. Then, just learn as much as you possibly can and what you really can do to be helpful and then act against that opportunity. No question."

Todd is one of the most remarkable people I've ever met, in a career filled with remarkable people. As Alex Howard notes, he should be an inspiration for more "retired" tech entrepreneurs to go into government. This is a guy who could do literally anything he put his mind to, and he's taking up the challenge of making our government smarter about technology. I want to put out a request to all my friends in the technology world: if Todd calls you and asks you for help, please take the call, and do whatever he asks.

February 21 2012

Building the health information infrastructure for the modern epatient

To learn more about what levers the government is pulling to catalyze innovation in the healthcare system, I turned to Dr. Farzad Mostashari (@Farzad_ONC). As the National Coordinator for Health IT, Mostashari is one of the most important public officials entrusted with improving the nation's healthcare system through smarter use of technology.

Dr. Farzad MostashariMostashari, a public-health informatics specialist, was named ONC chief in April 2011, replacing Dr. David Blumenthal. Mostashari's full biography, available at HHS.gov, notes that he "was one of the lead investigators in the outbreaks of West Nile Virus and anthrax in New York City, and was among the first developers of real-time electronic disease surveillance systems nationwide."

I talked to Mostashari on the same day that he published a look back over 2011, which he hailed as a year of momentous progress in health information technology. Our interview follows.

What excites you about your work? What trends matter here?

Farzad Mostashari‏: Well, it's a really fun job. It feels like this is the ideal time for this health IT revolution to tie into other massive megatrends that are happening around consumer and patient empowerment, payment and delivery reform, as I talked about in my TED Med Talk with Aneesh Chopra.

These three streams [how patients are cared for, how care is paid for, and how people take care of their own health] coming together feels great. And it really feels like we're making amazing progress.

How does what's happening today grow out of the passage of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH) Act in 2009?

Farzad Mostashari‏: HITECH was a key part of ARRA, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This is the reinvestment part. People think of roadways and runways and railways. This is the information infrastructure for healthcare.

In the past two years, we made as much progress on adoption as we had made in the past 20 years before that. We doubled the adoption of electronic health records in physician offices between the time the stimulus passed and now. What that says is that a large number of barriers have been addressed, including the financial barriers that are addressed by the health IT incentive payments.

It also, I think, points to the innovation that's happening in the health IT marketplace, with more products that people want to buy and want to use, and an explosion in the number of options people have.

The programs we put in place, like the Regional Health IT Extension Centers modeled after the Agriculture Extension program, give a helping hand. There are local nonprofits throughout the country that are working with one-third of all primary care providers in this country to help them adopt electronic health records, particularly smaller practices and maybe health centers, critical access hospitals and so forth.

This is obviously a big lift and a big change for medicine. It moves at what Jay Walker called "med speed," not tech speed. The pace of transformation in medicine that's happening right now may be unparalleled. It's a good thing.

Healthcare providers have a number of options as they adopt electronic health records. How do you think about the choice between open source versus proprietary options?

Farzad Mostashari‏: We're pretty agnostic in terms of the technology and the business model. What matters are the outcomes. We've really left the decisions about what technology to use to the people who have to live with it, like the doctors and hospitals who make the purchases.

There are definitely some very successful models, not only on the EHR side, but also on the health information exchange side.

(Note: For more on this subject, read Brian Ahier's Radar post on the Health Internet.)

What role do open standards play in the future of healthcare?

Farzad Mostashari‏: We are passionate believers in open standards. We think that everybody should be using them. We've gotten really great participation by vendors of open source and proprietary software, in terms of participating in an open standards development process.

I think what we've enabled, through things like modular certification, is a lot more innovation. Different pieces of the entire ecosystem could be done through reducing the barrier to entry, enabling a variety of different innovative startups to come to the field. What we're seeing is, a lot of the time, this is migrating from installed software to web services.

If we're setting up a reference implementation of the standards, like the Connect software or popHealth, we do it through a process where the result is open source. I think the government as a platform approach at the Veterans Affairs department, DoD, and so forth is tremendously important.

How is the mobile revolution changing healthcare?

We had Jay Walker talking about big change [at a recent ONC Grantee Meeting]. I just have this indelible image of him waving in his left hand a clay cone with cuneiform on it that is from 2,000 B.C. — 4,000 years ago — and in his right hand he held his iPhone.

He was saying both of them represented the cutting edge of technology that evolved to meet consumer need. His strong assertion was that this is absolutely going to revolutionize what happens in medicine at tech speed. Again, not "med speed."

I had the experience of being at my clinic, where I get care, and the pharmacist sitting in the starched, white coat behind the counter telling me that I should take this medicine at night.

And I said, "Well, it's easier for me to take it in the morning." And he said, "Well, it works better at night."

And I asked, acting as an empowered patient, "Well, what's the half life?" And he answered, "Okay. Let me look it up."

He started clacking away at his pharmacy information system; clickity clack, clickity clack. I can't see what he's doing. And then he says, "Ah hell," and he pulls out his smartphone and Googles it.

There's now a democratization of information and information tools, where we're pushing the analytics to the cloud. Being able to put that in the hand of not just every doctor or every healthcare provider but every patient is absolutely going to be that third strand of the DNA, putting us on the right path for getting healthcare that results in health.

We're making sure that people know they have a right to get their own data, making sure that the policies are aligned with that. We're making sure that we make it easy for doctors to give patients their own information through things like the Direct Project, the Blue Button, meaningful use requirements, or the Consumer E-Health Pledge.

We have more than 250 organizations that collectively hold data for 100 million Americans that pledge to make it easy for people to get electronic copies of their own data.

Do you think people will take ownership of their personal health data and engage in what Susannah Fox has described as "peer-to-peer healthcare"?

Farzad Mostashari‏: I think that it will be not just possible, not even just okay, but actually encouraged for patients to be engaged in their care as partners. Let the epatient help. I think we're going to see that emerging as there's more access and more tools for people to do stuff with their data once they get it through things like the health data initiative. We're also beginning to work with stakeholder groups, like Consumer's Union, the American Nurses Association and some of the disease groups, to change attitudes around it being okay to ask for your own records.

This interview was edited and condensed. Photo from The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.

Strata 2012 — The 2012 Strata Conference, being held Feb. 28-March 1 in Santa Clara, Calif., will offer three full days of hands-on data training and information-rich sessions. Strata brings together the people, tools, and technologies you need to make data work.

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20

Related:

February 14 2012

The bond between data and journalism grows stronger

While reporters and editors have been the traditional vectors for information gathering and dissemination, the flattened information environment of 2012 now has news breaking first online, not on the newsdesk.

That doesn't mean that the integrated media organizations of today don't play a crucial role. Far from it. In the information age, journalists are needed more than ever to curate, verify, analyze and synthesize the wash of data.

To learn more about the shifting world of data journalism, I interviewed Liliana Bounegru (@bb_liliana), project coordinator of SYNC3 and Data Driven Journalism at the European Journalism Centre.

What's the difference between the data journalism of today and the computer-assisted reporting (CAR) of the past?

Liliana Bounegru: There is a "continuity and change" debate going on around the label "data journalism" and its relationship with previous journalistic practices that employ computational techniques to analyze datasets.

Some argue [PDF] that there is a difference between CAR and data journalism. They say that CAR is a technique for gathering and analyzing data as a way of enhancing (usually investigative) reportage, whereas data journalism pays attention to the way that data sits within the whole journalistic workflow. In this sense, data journalism pays equal attention to finding stories and to the data itself. Hence, we find the Guardian Datablog or the Texas Tribune publishing datasets alongside stories, or even just datasets by themselves for people to analyze and explore.

Another difference is that in the past, investigative reporters would suffer from a poverty of information relating to a question they were trying to answer or an issue that they were trying to address. While this is, of course, still the case, there is also an overwhelming abundance of information that journalists don't necessarily know what to do with. They don't know how to get value out of data. As Philip Meyer recently wrote to me: "When information was scarce, most of our efforts were devoted to hunting and gathering. Now that information is abundant, processing is more important."

On the other hand, some argue that there is no difference between data journalism and computer-assisted reporting. It is by now common sense that even the most recent media practices have histories as well as something new in them. Rather than debating whether or not data journalism is completely novel, a more fruitful position would be to consider it as part of a longer tradition but responding to new circumstances and conditions. Even if there might not be a difference in goals and techniques, the emergence of the label "data journalism" at the beginning of the century indicates a new phase wherein the sheer volume of data that is freely available online combined with sophisticated user-centric tools enables more people to work with more data more easily than ever before. Data journalism is about mass data literacy.

Strata 2012 — The 2012 Strata Conference, being held Feb. 28-March 1 in Santa Clara, Calif., will offer three full days of hands-on data training and information-rich sessions. Strata brings together the people, tools, and technologies you need to make data work.

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20

What does data journalism mean for the future of journalism? Are there new business models here?

Liliana Bounegru: There are all kinds of interesting new business models emerging with data journalism. Media companies are becoming increasingly innovative with the way they produce revenues, moving away from subscription-based models and advertising to offering consultancy services, as in the case of the German award-winning OpenDataCity.

Digital technologies and the web are fundamentally changing the way we do journalism. Data journalism is one part in the ecosystem of tools and practices that have sprung up around data sites and services. Quoting and sharing source materials (structured data) is in the nature of the hyperlink structure of the web and in the way we are accustomed to navigating information today. By enabling anyone to drill down into data sources and find information that is relevant to them as individuals or to their community, as well as to do fact checking, data journalism provides a much needed service coming from a trustworthy source. Quoting and linking to data sources is specific to data journalism at the moment, but seamless integration of data in the fabric of media is increasingly the direction journalism is going in the future. As Tim Berners-Lee says, "data-driven journalism is the future".

What data-driven journalism initiatives have caught your attention?

Liliana Bounegru: The data journalism project FarmSubsidy.org is one of my favorites. It addresses a real problem: The European Union (EU) is spending 48% of its budget on agriculture subsidies, yet the money doesn't reach those who need it.

Tracking payments and recipients of agriculture subsidies from the European Union to all member states is a difficult task. The data is scattered in different places in different formats, with some missing and some scanned in from paper records. It is hard to piece it together to form a comprehensive picture of how funds are distributed. The project not only made the data available to anyone in an easy to understand way, but it also advocated for policy changes and better transparency laws.

LRA Crisis Tracker

Another of my favorite examples is the LRA Crisis Tracker, a real-time crisis mapping platform and data collection system. The tracker makes information about the attacks and movements of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Africa publicly available. It helps to inform local communities, as well as the organizations that support the affected communities, about the activities of the LRA through an early-warning radio network in order to reduce their response time to incidents.

I am also a big fan of much of the work done by the Guardian Datablog. You can find lots of other examples featured on datadrivenjournalism.net, along with interviews, case studies and tutorials.

I've talked to people like Chicago Tribune news app developer Brian Boyer about the emerging "newsroom stack." What do you feel are the key tools of the data journalist?

Liliana Bounegru: Experienced data journalists list spreadsheets as a top data journalism tool. Open source tools and web-based applications for data cleaning, analysis and visualization play very important roles in finding and presenting data stories. I have been involved in organizing several workshops on ScraperWiki and Google Refine for data collection and analysis. We found that participants were quite able to quickly ask and answer new kinds of questions with these tools.

How does data journalism relate to open data and open government?

Liliana Bounegru: Open government data means that more people can access and reuse official information published by government bodies. This in itself is not enough. It is increasingly important that journalists can keep up and are equipped with skills and resources to understand open government data. Journalists need to know what official data means, what it says and what it leaves out. They need to know what kind of picture is being presented of an issue.

Public bodies are very experienced in presenting data to the public in support of official policies and practices. Journalists, however, will often not have this level of literacy. Only by equipping journalists with the skills to use data more effectively can we break the current asymmetry, where our understanding of the information that matters is mediated by governments, companies and other experts. In a nutshell, open data advocates push for more data, and data journalists help the public to use, explore and evaluate it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo on associated home and category pages: NYTimes: 365/360 - 1984 (in color) by blprnt_van, on Flickr.

Related:

February 13 2012

Open innovation works in the public sector, say federal CTOs

President Barack Obama named Aneesh Chopra as the nation’s first chief technology officer in April 2009. In the nearly three years since, he was a tireless, passionate advocate for applying technology to make government and society work better. If you're not familiar with the work of the nation's first CTO, make sure to read Nancy Scola's extended "exit interview" with Aneesh Chopra at the Atlantic. where he was clear about his role: "As an advisor to the president, I have three main responsibilities," he said: "To make sure he has the best information to make the right policy calls for the country, which is a question of my judgment."

On his last day at the White House, Chopra released an "open innovator's toolkit" that highlights twenty different case studies in how he, his staff and his fellow chief technology officers at federal agencies have been trying to stimulate innovation in government.

Chopra announced the toolkit last week at a forum on open innovation at the Center for American Progress in Washington. The forum was moderated by former Virginia congressman Tom Perriello, who currently serves as counselor for policy to the Center for American Progress and featured Todd Park, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services CTO, Peter Levin, senior advisor to the Veterans Affair Secretary and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs CTO, and Chris Vein, deputy U.S. CTO for government innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Video of the event is embedded below:

An open innovator's toolkit

"Today, we are unveiling 20 specific techniques that are in of themselves interesting and useful -- but they speak to this broader movement of how we are shifting, in many ways, or expanding upon the traditional policy levers of government," said Chopra in his remarks on Wednesday. In the interview with the Atlantic and in last week's forum, Chopra laid out four pillars in the administration's approach to open innovation:

  • Moving beyond providing public sector data by request to publishing machine-readable open data by default
  • Engaging with the public not simply as a regulator but as "impatient convener"
  • Using prizes and competitions to achieve outcomes, not just procurements
  • Focusing on attracting talented people to government by allowing them to serve as “entrepreneurs-in-residence.”

"We are clearly moving to a world where you don't just get data by requesting it but it's the default setting to publish it," said Chopra. "We're moving to a world where we're acting beyond the role of regulator to one of 'impatient convening.' We are clearly moving to a world where we're not just investing through mechanisms like procurement and RFPs to one where where we're tapping into the expertise of the American people through challenges, prizes and competition. And we are changing the face of government, recruiting individuals who have more of an entrepreneur-in-residence feel than a traditional careerist position that has in it the expectation of a lifetime of service. "

"Entrepreneurs and innovators around the country are contributing to our greater good. In some cases, they're coming in for a tour of duty, as you'll hear from Todd and Peter. But in many others, they're coming in where they can and how they can because if we tap into the collective expertise of the American people we can actually overcome some of the most vexing challenges that today, when you read the newspaper and you watch Washington, you say, 'Gosh, do we have it in us' to get beyond the divisions and these challenges, not just at the federal government but across all level of the public sector."

Open innovation, applied

Applying open innovation "is a task we’ve seen deployed effectively across our nation’s most innovative companies," writes Chopra in the memorandum on open innovation that the White House released this week. "Procter & Gamble’s “Connect+Develop” strategy to source 50% of its innovations from the outside; Amazon’s “Just Do It” awards to celebrate innovative ideas from within; and Facebook’s “Development Platform” that generated an estimated 180,000 jobs in 2011 focused on growing the economy while returning benefits to Facebook in the process."

The examples that Chopra cited are "bonafide," said MIT principal research professor Andrew McAfee, via email. "Open innovation or crowdsourcing or whatever you want to call it is real, and is (slowly) making inroads into mainstream (i.e. non high-tech) corporate America. P&G is real. Innocentive is real. Kickstarter is real. Idea solicitations like the ones from Starbucks are real, and lead-user innovation is really real."

McAfee also shared the insight of Eric Von Hippel on innovation:

“What is changing,” is that it is getting easier for consumers to innovate, with the Internet and such tools, and it is becoming more visible for the same reason. Historically though the only person who had the incentive to publicize innovation was the producer. People build institutions around how a process works and the mass production era products were built by mass production companies, but they weren’t invented by them. When you create institutions like mass production companies you create the infrastructure to help and protect them such as heavy patent protection. Now though we see that innovation is distributed, open collaborative.”

In his remarks, Chopra hailed a crowdsourced approach to the design of DARPA's next-generation combat vehicle, where an idea from a U.S. immigrant led to a better outcome. "The techniques we’ve deployed along the way have empowered innovators, consumers, and policymakers at all levels to better use technology, data, and innovation," wrote Chopra in the memo.

"We’ve demonstrated that “open innovation,” the crowdsourcing of citizen expertise to enhance government innovation, delivers real results. Fundamentally, we believe that the American people, when equipped with the right tools, can solve many problems." To be fair, the "toolkit" in question amounts more to a list of links and case studies than a detailed manual or textbook, but people interested in innovating in government at the local, state and national level should find it useful.

The question now is whether the country and its citizens will be the "winners in the productivity revolutions of the future," posed Chopra, looking to the markets for mobile technology, healthcare and clean energy. In that context, Chopra said that "open data is an active ingredient" in job creation and economic development, citing existing examples. 6 million Californians can now download their energy data through the Green Button, said Chopra, with new Web apps like Watt Quiz providing better interfaces for citizens to make more informed consumption decision.

More than 76,000 Americans found places to get treatment or health services using iTriage, said Chopra, with open data spurring better healthcare decisions by a more informed mobile citizenry. He hailed the role of collaborative innovation in open government, with citing mobile healthcare app ginger.io.

Open government platforms

During his tenure as US CTO, Chopra was a proponent of open data, participatory platforms and one of the Obama administration's most prominent evangelists for the use of technology to make government more open and collaborative. Our September 2010 interview on his work is embedded below:

In his talk last Wednesday, Chopra highlighted two notable examples of open government. First, he described the "startup culture" at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, highlighting the process by which the new .gov agency designed a better mortgage disclosure form.

Second, Chopra cited two e-petitions to veto the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act on the White House e-petition platform, We The People, as an important example of open government in actions. The e-petitions, which gathered more than 103,000 signatures, are proof that when citizens are given the opportunity to participate, they will, said Chopra. The White House response, which came at a historic moment in the week the Web changed Washington. "SOPA/PIPA is exactly what We the People was meant to do," Chopra told Nancy Scola.

Traditionally, Congress formally requests a Statement of Administration Policy, called a "SAP." Requests for SAPs come in all the time from Congress. We respond based on the dynamics of Washington, priorities and timelines. One would argue that a Washington-centric approach would have have been to await the request for a SAP and publish it, oftentimes when a major vote is happening. If you contrast that were SOPA/PIPA was, still in committee or just getting out of committee, and not yet on the floor, traditionally a White House would not issue a SAP that early. So the train we were on, the routine Washington line of business, we would have awaited the right time to issue a SAP, and done it at congressional request. It just wasn't time yet. The We the People process flipped upside-down to whom we are responsible for providing input. In gathering over a hundred thousand signatures, on SOPA/PIPA, the American people effectively demanded a SAP.

Innovation for healthcare and veterans

"I think people will embrace the open innovation approach because it works," said Todd Park at last week's forum, citing examples at Novartis, Aventis and Walgreens, amongst others. Park cited "Joy's Law," by Sun Microsystems computer science pioneer Bill Joy: "no matter who you are, you have to remember that most of the smart people don't work for you."

Part of making that work is opening up systems in a way that enables citizens, developers and industry to collaborate in creating solutions. "We're moving the culture away from proprietary, closed systems … into something that is modular, standards-based & open, said Peter Levin.

If you went to the Veterans Affairs website in 2009, you couldn't see where you were in the process, said Levin. One of the ways to solve that problem is to create a platform for people to talk to each other, he explained, which the VA was able to do that through its Facebook page.

That may be a "colossal policy change," in his view, but it had an important result: "the whole patronizing fear that if we open up dialogue, open up channels, you'll create a problem you can't undo - that's not true for us," he said.

If you want to rock and roll, emphasized Park, don't just have your own smart people work on a challenge. That's an approach that Aventis executives found success using in a data diabetes challenge. Walgreens will be installing "Health Guides" at its stores to act as a free "health concierge," said Park, as opposed to what they would have done normally. They launched a challenge and, in under three months, got 50 credible prototypes. Now, said Park, mHealthCoach is building Health Guides for Walgreens.

One of the most important observations Park made, however, may have been that there has been too much of a focus on apps created from open data, as opposed to data informing policy makers and care givers. If you want to revolutionize the healthcare industry, open data needs to be at the fingertips of the people who need it most, where then need it most, when they need it most.

For instance, at a recent conference, he said, "Aetna rolled out this innovation called a nurse." If you want to have data help people, built a better IT cockpit for that nurse that helps that person become more omniscient. Have the nurse talk over the telephone with a human who can be helped by the power of the open data in front of the healthcare worker.

Who will pick up the first federal CTO's baton?

Tim O'Reilly made a case for Chopra in April 2009, when the news of his selection leaked. Tim put the role of a federal CTO in the context of someone who provides "visionary leadership, to help a company (or in this case, a government) explore the transformative potential of new technology." In many respects, he delivered upon that goal during his tenure. The person who fills the role will need to provide similar leadership, and to do so in a difficult context, given economic and political headwinds that confront the White House.

As he turns the page towards the next chapter of his career -- one which sources cited by the Washington Post might lead him into politics in Virginia -- the open question now will be who President Obama will choose to be the next "T" in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, a role that remains undefined, in terms of Congressional action.

The administration made a strong choice in federal CIO Steven VanRoekel. Inside of government, Park or Levin are both strong candidates for the role, along with Andrew Blumenthal, CTO at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. In the interim, Chris Vein, deputy chief technology office for public sector innovation, is carrying the open government innovation banner in the White House.

In this election year, who the administration chooses to pick up the baton from Chopra will be an important symbol of its commitment to harnessing technology on behalf of the American people. Given the need for open innovation to addressing the nation's grand challenges, from healthcare to energy to education, the person tapped to run this next leg will play an important role in the country's future.

Related:

February 01 2012

With GOV.UK, British government redefines the online government platform

The British Government has launched a beta of its GOV.UK platform, testing a single domain for that could be used throughout government. The new single government domain will eventually replace Directgov, the UK government portal which launched back in 2004. GOV.UK is aimed squarely as delivering faster digital services to citizens through a much improved user interface at decreased cost.

Unfortunately, far too often .gov websites cost millions and don't deliver as needed. GOV.UK is mobile-friendly, platform agnostic, uses HTML5, scalable, open source, hosted in the cloud and open for feedback. Those criteria collectively embody the default for how government should approach their online efforts in the 21st century.

gov.uk screenshot

“Digital public services should be easy to find and simple to use - they must also be cost effective and SME-friendly," said Francis Maude, the British Minister for the Cabinet Office, in a prepared statement. "The beta release of a single domain takes us one step closer to this goal."

Tom Loosemore, deputy director of government digital service at UK Government, introduced the beta of GOV.UK at the Government Digital Service blog, including a great deal of context on its development and history. Over at the Financial Times Tech blog, Tim Bradshaw published an excellent review of the GOV.UK beta.

As Bradshaw highlights, what's notable about the new beta is not just the site itself but the team and culture behind it: that of a large startup, not the more ponderous bureaucracy of Whitehall, the traditional "analogue" institution..

GOV.UK is a watershed in how government approaches Web design, both in terms of what you see online and how it was developed. The British team of developers, designers and managers behind the platform collaboratively built GOV.UK in-house using agile development and the kind of iterative processes one generally only sees in modern Web design shops. Given that this platform is designed to serve as a common online architecture for the government of the United Kingdom, that's meaningful.

“Our approach is changing," said Maude. "IT needs to be commissioned or rented, rather than procured in huge, expensive contracts of long duration. We are embracing new, cloud-based start-ups and enterprise companies and this will bring benefits for small and medium sized enterprises here in the UK and so contribute to growth.”

The designers of GOV.UK, in fact, specifically describe it as "government as a platform," in terms of something that others can build upon. It was open from the start, given that the new site was built entirely using open source tools. The code behind GOV.UK has been released as open source code on GitHub.

"For me, this platform is all about putting the user needs first in the delivery of public services online in the UK," said Mike Bracken, executive director of government digital services. Bracken is the former director of digital development at the Guardian News and Media and was involved in setting up MySociety. "For too long, user need has been trumped by internal demands, existing technology choices and restrictive procurement practices. Gov.uk puts user need firmly in charge of all our digital thinking, and about time too."

The Gov.UK stack

Reached via email, Bracken explained more about the technology choices that have gone into GOV.UK, starting with the platform diagram below.

gov.uk screenshot

Why create an open source stack? "Why not?" asked Bracken."It's a government platform, and as such it belongs to us all and we want people to contribute and share in its development."

While many local, state and federal sites in the United States have chosen to adapt and use Wordpress or Drupal as open government platforms, the UK team started with afresh.

"Much of the code is based on our earlier alpha, which we launched in May last year as an early prototype for a single platform," said Bracken. "We learnt from the journey, and rewrote some key components recently, one key element of the prototype in scale."

According to Bracken, the budget for the beta is £1.7 million pounds, which they are running under at present. (By way of contrast, the open government reboot of FCC.gov was estimated to cost 1.35 million dollars.) There are about 40 developers coding on GOV.UK, said Bracken, but the entire Government Digital Service has around 120 staff, with up to 1800 external testers. They also used several external development houses to complement their team, some for only two weeks at a time.

Why build an entirely new open government platform? "It works," said Bracken. "It's inherently flexible, best of breed and completely modular. And it doesn't require any software licenses."

Bracken believes that the GOV.UK will give the British government agility, flexibility and freedom to change as they go, which are, as he noted not characteristics aligned with the usual technology build in the UK -- or elsewhere, for that matter.

Given the British government's ambitious plans for open data, the GOV.UK platform also will need to be act as, well, a platform. On that count, they're still planning, not implementing.

"With regard to API's, our long term plan is to 'go wholesale,' by which we mean expose data and services via API's," said Bracken. "We are at the early stages of mapping out key attributes, particularly around identity services, so to be fair it's early days yet. The inherent flexibility does allow for us to accommodate future changes, but it would be premature to make substantial claims to back up API delivery at this point."

The GOV.UK platform will be adaptable for the purposes of city government as well, over time. "We aim to migrate key department sites onto it in the first period of migration, and then look at government agencies," said Bracken. "The migration, with over 400 domains to review, will take more than a year. We aim to offer various platform services which meet the needs of all Government service providers."

Making GOV.UK citizen-centric

The GOV.UK platform was also designed to be citizen-centric, keeping the tasks that people come to a government site to accomplish in mind. Its designers, apparently amply supplied with classic British humor, dubbed the engine that tracks them the "Needotron."

"We didn't just identify top needs," said Loosemore, via email. "We built a machine to manage them for us now and in the future. Currently there are 667!" Loosemore said that they've open sourced the Needotron code, for those interested in tracking needs of their own.

"There are some of the Top needs we've not got to properly yet," said Loosemore. "For example, job search is still sub-optimal, as is the stuff to do with losing your passport."

According to Loosemore, some the top needs that citizens have when they come to a site in the UK are determining the minimum wage, learning when the public and bank holidays are or when the clocks change for British Summer Time. They also come to central government to pay their council tax, which is actually a local function, but GOV.UK is designed to route those users to the correct site using geolocation.

This beta will have the top 1000 things you would need to do government, said Maude, speaking at the Sunlight Foundation this week. (If that's so, there's over 300 more yet to go.)

"There's massive change needed in our approach to how to digitize what we do," he said. "Instead of locking in with a massive supplier, we need to be thinking of it the other way around. What do people need from government? Work from the outside in and redesign processes."

In his comments, Maude emphasized the importance of citizen-centricity, with respect to interfaces. We don't need to educate people on how to use a service, he said. We need to educate government on how to serve the citizen.

"Like U.S., the U.K. has a huge budget deficit," he said. "The public expects to be able to transact with government in a cheap, easy way. This enables them to do it in a cheaper, easier way, with choices. It's not about cutting 10 or 20% from the cost but how to do it for 10 or 20% of the total cost."

The tech behind Gov.UK

James Stewart, who was the tech lead on the beta of GOV.UK, recently blogged about and browser support. He emailed me the following breakdown of the rest of the technology behind GOV.UK.

Hosting and Infrastructure:

  • DNS hosted by Dyn.com
  • Servers are Amazon EC2 instances running Ubuntu 10.04LTS
  • Email (internal alerts) sending via Amazon SES and Gmail
  • Miscellaneous file storage on Amazon S3
  • Jetty application server
  • Nginx, Apache and mod_passenger
  • Jenkins continuous integration server
  • Caching by Varnish
  • Configuration management using Puppet

Front end

  • Javascript uses jQuery, jQuery UI, Chosen, and a variety of other plugins
  • Gill Sans, provided by fonts.com
  • Google web font loader

Languages, Frameworks and Plugins

"Most of the application code is written in Ruby, running on a mixture of Rails and Sinatra," said Stewart. "Rails and Sinatra gave us the right balance of productivity and clean code, and were well known to the team we've assembled. We've used a range of gems along with these, full details of which can be found in the Gemfiles at Github.com/alphagov."

The router for GOV.UK is written in Scala and uses Scalatra for its internal API, said Stewart. "The router distributes requests to the appropriate backend apps, allowing us to keep individual apps very focused on a particular problem without exposing that to visitors," said Stewart. "We did a bake-off between a ruby implementation and a Scala implementation and were convinced that the Scala version was better able to handle the high level of concurrency this app will require."

Databases

  • MongoDB. "We started out building everything using MySQL but moved to MongoDB as we realised how much of our content fitted its document-centric approach," said Stewart. "Over time we've been more and more impressed with it and expect to increase our usage of it in the future."
  • MySQL, hosted using Amazon's RDS platform. "Some of the data we need to store is still essentially relational and we use MySQL to store that," said Stewart. "Amazon RDS takes away many of the scaling and resilience concerns we had with that, without requiring changes to our application code."
  • MaPit geocoding and information service from mySociety. "MaPit not only does conventional geocoding, " said Stewart, in terms of determining what the given the longitude or latitude is for a postcode, but " italso gives us details of all the local government areas a postcode is in, which lets us point visitors to relevant local services."

Collaboration tools

gov.uk screenshot

  • Campfire for team chat
  • Google Apps
  • MediaWiki
  • Pivotal Tracker
  • Many, many index cards.

Related:

January 24 2012

"The President of the United States is on the phone. Would you like to Hangout on Google+?"

We're suddenly very close to science fiction becoming reality television, live streamed to large and small screens around the world. On Monday, January 30th, 2012, the fireside chats that FDR hosted on citizens' radios in the 20th century will have a digital analogue in the new millennium: President Barack Obama will host a Google+ Hangout from the West Wing, only a few weeks after the White House joined Google+.

Screenshot of President Obama sending a tweet through the @whitehouse account
A screenshot from July 6, 2011, of President Obama sending his first tweet through the @whitehouse account. On January 30, he'll host the first president Hangout on Google+.

If you have a question for the president, you can ask it by submitting a video to the White House's video channel, where you can also vote upon other questions. The president will be answering "several of the most popular questions that have been submitted through YouTube, and some of the people who submitted questions will even be invited to join the president in the Hangout and take part in the live conversation," explained Kori Schulman, deputy director of digital content at the White House, at the White House blog.

The real-time presidency

This upcoming "President Hangout" offers a fascinating window into what bids to be a disruptive scenario to citizen-to-government (or citizen-to-citizen) communications in our near future. Mobile Hangouts on smartphones running the world's biggest mobile operating system, Android, could enable citizens to connect to important conversations from wherever a call finds them.

Such town halls could be live streamed and shared through Facebook, Google+ or the White House's iOS app, reaching hundreds of millions of people connected through mobile broadband connections. In the future, we might even see iOS cameras enable citizens to "get some FaceTime with the president" through his iPad. The quality of the video on the iPad 2 is poor now, as owners know, but what if Apple adds a camera to the iPad 3 as good as the one it added to the iPhone4S? That would enable instant video chat through 100m+ connected iOS devices, along with millions of MacBooks and iMacs that have webcams.

In that future, I can't help but think of video phones from the "Jetsons." Or "Blade Runner," "Minority Report," "The Fifth Element" or "Total Recall.' Or, better yet, "Star Trek," since Gene Roddenberry's vision of a peaceful future is a lot better than the dystopian epics Philip K. Dick tended to write.

Style or open government substance?

The technology we have in our hands right now, of course, is pretty exciting. The prospect of a presidential Hangout has naturally been getting plenty of attention in the media, from CNET to Mashable to the L.A. Times to NextGov, where Joseph Marks has one of the smartest takes to date. In his post, Marks, a close observer of how the White House is using technology in support of open government, goes right to the heart of what analysts and the media should be asking: What does this mean and how will it work?

The administration is touting the Google Plus event as 'the first completely-virtual interview from the White House.' It's not entirely clear what that means. It could signal merely that the president will respond directly to questioners' YouTube videos rather than having them keyed up by a moderator. In past social media Town Halls conducted through Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, Obama has typically shared the stage with a moderator who introduced and sometimes picked questions. If questioners are able to ask their questions directly, including follow-up questions through the Hangout feature, that would be a more significant innovation.

To put it another way, will the first presidential Google+ Hangout be about substance, or is this about burnishing the president 's tech-savvy image and credentials in an election year?

When I asked that question openly on Twitter, Gadi Ben Yehuda, who analyzes and teaches about the government's use of social media for IBM, replied: "Both, I bet. Message is medium, after all. Style, in this case, is part of substance."

As it happens, Macon Phillips, director of digital strategy at the White House, was also listening. "What criteria would you use to answer that question?" he asked. Noah Chestnut, director of digital media at Hamilton Place Strategies in D.C., suggested the following criteria: "Q's asked, length + content of A's, follow-up Q's vs. cursory, who writes the process stories."

As I analyze this new experiment in digital democracy, I will look at A) whether the questions answered were based upon the ones most citizens wanted asked and B) whether the answers were rehashed talking points or specific to the intent of the questions asked. That latter point was one fair critique I've seen levied by the writers at techPresident after the first "Twitter Townhall" last July.

In reply, Phillips tweeted: "Well, if the past 2 post-SOTU [State of the Union] events are any indication, you should be optimistic! One the exciting things about the Hangout format is that conversational aspect." As evidence for this assertion, Phillips linked to videos of YouTube interviews with President Obama after the 2010 and 2011 State of the Union addresses. The president answered questions sourced from the Google Moderator tool on the CitizenTube channel.

There are process questions that matter as well. Will Steve Grove, head of community partnerships at Google+, be asking the questions? Or will  the president himself respond directly to the questions of citizens?

Phillips replied that there will be a "little bit of both to involve both the voting prior and the participants during." He also told the Associated Press that the White House would have no role in choosing the questions or participants in the Hangout. "For online engagement to be interesting, it has to be honest," Phillips said. "We want to give Americans more control over this conversation and the chance to ask questions they care about."

In other words, citizens will be able to ask the president questions directly via YouTube and, if chosen, may have the opportunity to join him in the Hangout. When I asked Phillips my own follow-up question, he suggested that "for specifics on format, better to connect w/@GROVE but we are planning for ?'s that are voted on & others asked live."

I was unable to reach Grove. However, he told the Associated Press that the Hangout "will make for a really personal conversation with the president that's never really happened before."

Will there be #realtalk in real time?

Direct interactivity through a Hangout could also introduce that rare element that's missing at many presidential appearances: unscripted moments. That's what the editors of techPresident will be watching for in this new experiment. "Our prevailing hypothesis around here is that one great promise of the Internet in politics is to create unscripted moments, opportunities to yank politicians off of their talking points and into a confrontation with the real and complex problems America faces today," wrote Nick Judd. "We saw this in July at the very end of the Twitter event with Obama. Reid Epstein saw a similar occurrence when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential aspirations took him to a New Hampshire diner, where he met a gay veteran who asked him about same-sex marriage. We're hungrily looking for examples of this in the integrations of the Internet and of social media in presidential debates, and not finding many so far."

What will be particularly interesting will be the opportunities that citizens have to ask follow-up questions on the Hangout if they're not satisfied with an answer. That feedback loop is what tends to be missing from these online forums. Many citizens haven't had the opportunity to ask informed, aggressive follow-up questions like, say, at a presidential press conference at the White House. The evolution of these platforms will occur when organizations stop "adopting" them and start actually using them. In this case, using the killer app of the Google+ platform to connect directly with the American people.

As of this morning, 30,594 people have submitted 16,047 questions and cast 208,431 votes. Currently, the most popular video questions are about stopping the PROTECT IP Act and Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which would establish international standards for intellectual property. The top question comes from "Anonymous," and asks "Mr. President, it's all good and well that SOPA and PIPA are slowed down in Congress, but what are you doing about ACTA? This is an international agreement which could prove much more devastating."

To date, President Obama, has not commented extensively on ACTA or either of these bills. If any of those questions are answered, it will indeed be evidence that the White House is listening and the president's commitment "to creating a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration" using social media and technology is genuine.

A version of this post originally appeared on Google+.

Related:

September 01 2011

Government IT's quiet open source evolution

GOSCON logoAttendees of the recent Government Open Source Conference (GOSCON) were privy to some of the most thoughtful conversations about open source in government I've heard this year. A packed room for a panel on cost savings in Washington, D.C., confirmed that strong interest in saving taxpayer dollars through open source exists in the federal IT community.

"What I saw in this panel was a real change in the government attitude toward open source: it's not new, it's not revolutionary," wrote Gunnar Hellekson, chief technology strategist for Red Hat. "It's just an extremely effective tool that agencies are learning how to put to its best and highest use."

Even if cost savings are only part of the open-source story, in the context of the budgetary pressures that governments are feeling, there is rising interest in how to achieve them. Making city government cost less is part of the mission of Civic Commons and is a pillar of the economic rationale for open government.

There's no shortage of open-source case studies for policy makers and IT buyers to review. From the State Department to NASA to the FCC to the White House, the federal government is publicly embracing open-source software and platforms. More quietly, open-source software is used throughout research-based agencies, the intelligence community and the military, as a newly released government open-source handbook from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence makes clear.

Roadblocks to acquisition

Despite increasing adoption since Linux first made its way into federal government in the 1990s, significant challenges around the acquisition process and lingering concerns about security surround open source in government. Nearly two years after former U.S. chief information officer Vivek Kundra advocated open source in federal IT acquisition, Kundra, Dan Gordon, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, and Victoria Espinel, U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator, still had to co-author a memo that emphasized technology-neutral IT procurement decisions. The memo reminded the people in charge of spending nearly $80 billion dollars annually "to select IT based on appropriate criteria while analyzing available alternatives, including proprietary, open source and mixed source technologies."

A substantial part of the acquisition issue is grounded in a continuing misconception about open-source software's status as commercial software, explained David Wheeler, a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses. Open-source software is included in the category of commercial off-the-shelf software (COTS), said Wheeler. Under the Federal Acquisitions Regulation (FAR), government is required by law to consider COTS software. If IT procurement officials ignore open source in procurement, so Wheeler's reasoning goes, they're breaking the law. (By way of contrast, open source appears to be illegal in the Slovak Republic.)

Wheeler, whose paper, "More than a Gigabuck: Estimating GNU/Linux's Size," has been called "the seminal work on the costs savings inherent in the use of open-source software by government," does not advocate for government to always adopt open source. "Open source isn't always cheaper, but it's often a bargain," Wheeler said. "You must consider open-source software options."

Despite that reality, the traditional procurement infrastructure still presents huge challenges to open source adoption. Wheeler, in what was probably the understatement of the day at GOSCON, observed that "unless you're used to dealing with the government, it's really hard to get in."

Greg Elin, chief data officer at the FCC, suggested that startups, developers, and small business get together and learn how to interface with government. The procurement structure around government is an infrastructure, he said. The open-source community needs to figure out how to interface with it, Elin advised, much in the same way that point-to-point protocol lets people connect to the Internet.

Strata Conference New York 2011, being held Sept. 22-23, covers the latest and best tools and technologies for data science — from gathering, cleaning, analyzing, and storing data to communicating data intelligence effectively.

Save 30% on registration with the code ORM30

Cost savings in the cloud and greenfields

"What fascinated me about open source as a model was that it reduced the cost of bringing software into an organization," said Elin. There are three areas that Elin identified where open source enhances an agency's bottom line: commoditized network services, scaling in the cloud, and "greenfield" scenarios.

Open source is cost effective "in the cloud where scaling is important but active user demand is low," said Elin. That's a lesson that the FCC applied in rebooting FCC.gov as an open-government platform and launching the National Broadband Map. Elin said the Broadband Map started with proprietary software and then moved to open source when the FCC needed to do unsupported data translations.

For instance, "NASA has a situation where they have petabytes of data," said Elin. "That isn't something you go out and buy products for — it's a greenfield scenario." That need was part of what drove one of NASA's flagship open-government initiatives, NASA Nebula.

"Ultimately, it's the right tool for the right job," Elin said. "We live in a labyrinthian licensing landscape." Estimating costs is very hard, given how licenses are all mixed together.

For more perspective on open source beyond cost cutting, read the rest of Hellekson's post.

Open code as a public good

Open source is part of the culture of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPB), Washington's first startup agency. Matthew Burton, a former CIA technologist who now works in the office of the CIO at the CFPB, said the CFPB includes open-source culture and code sharing. "A lot of the things we're creating have a much bigger potential audience," noted Burton during a GOSCON panel.

For example, the CFPB made a jQuery tool to help redesign the mortgage disclosure form. By sharing the code for the tool, the agency hopes the open-source community will help keep it up to date.

That approach is targeted at the "instant legacy" issue in government IT. Once government contractors develop code, they're done. A collaborative open-source approach can help mitigate that finality, said Burton. "If you're developing software with the public's dollars, that code should be shared with the public."

There's some prospect for that actually happening in an important place: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Douglas Maughan, branch chief in Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA) within the Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate of the DHS, floated an interesting idea at GOSCON: make code open source by default if a government contractor doesn't commercialize it. That would represent a change in the cyber research and development at S&T, and the shift would have to make it through a squadron of lawyers. That said, given the way that the DHS is using open source and exploring "open security methods," what happens next could be an important inflection point to watch.

Related:

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl