What did I learn at Fedtalks? The Department of Defense is way ahead of the country on electronic health records. The Veterans Administration's new "Blue Button" is a sorely needed salve to disabled veterans. By 2014, NASA CTO Chris Kemp estimates that Generation Y will be over 47% of the workforce. President Obama knows how to install a Firefox Web browser plug-in. The General Services Administration has a new platform for citizen engagement software. PBS viewers will be able to watch much more public media programming online and on iPads soon. And Craig Newmark wants government to free the nerds.
Newmark and Kemp shared the stage at the beautiful Shakespeare Theater in downtown Washington with a host of familiar faces from around Washington politics, media and technology, including federal CIO Vivek Kundra, deputy White House CTO Andrew McLaughlin, Congressman Jim Moran, publisher Arianna Huffington, Veterans Administration CTO Peter Levin, journalist Ana Marie Cox, Robert Bole, vice president of Digital Media Strategy at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, executives from Symantec and HP, local videoblogger Remy Munasifi and a host of other voices from around the Gov 2.0 world.
If you're not familiar with that world, "Gov 2.0" could be broadly described as the movement to use social media, data, blogs, wikis and online video to make government work better. Think of it like Web 2.0 for government. To that end, Obama administration has been trying to employ technology for that purpose in an initiative that it has called open government. Micah Sifry and the Personal Democracy Forum use a term called "We-government, or "the co-creating of new forms of collaboration and service that use technology, public data and the social web to address vital issues and solve public problems, that enables us to do more with less."
Whatever you call it, the trend is worth reporting on. "What we in the media need to do is put more of a spotlight on what is working," said Arianna Huffington. (For that, look to ongoing Gov 2.0 coverage here at the Huffington Post, O'Reilly Radar, Govfresh, Mashable or ReadWriteWeb). Her speech at Fedtalks on engaging citizens was strongly reminiscent of her post on Gov 2.0 after the Personal Democracy Forum, asking whether technology can forge a new relationship between government and the public, right down to a reference to Newark mayor Cory Booker. Her bottom line was simple and, in theory, post-partisan: "Whatever you think the role of government should be, we all want it to be more effective."
White House Tech Policy Priorities
If Cox and Huffington provided a new media perspective, White House deputy chief technology officer Andrew McLaughlin offered a view from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
McLaughlin made a simple assertion that speaks to the historical moment we're in: that the country has a president "really is committed to tech." Beyond starting the Open Government Initiative, McLaughlin said that President Obama "understands how to reboot his laptop when necessary" or "pull down a plugin into Firefox." In other words, "understands how to do the things we do online."
While that understanding and commitment was questioned in Politico by a number of tech industry leaders, some of the big bets that the new administration has made have been going online this fall. Putting "data to work through free markets" is one of those big ideas that's been germinating since Data.gov first went online. Over at the Department of Health and Human Services, CTO Todd Park has been working on making community health information as useful as weather data. NASA and NOAA are exploring data as a climate change agent. Whether open data can be put to further work is still unclear; one of the standout Gov 2.0 startups, BrightScope, has had to file dozens of FOIA requests to get the data it needs from the Department of Labor.
Beyond opening government data, McLaughlin reiterated two key White House priorities for electronic privacy: smart grid and health information technology. Getting both right will have substantial importance to the future of the country, which is why McLaughlin and federal CTO Aneesh Chopra have put them atop the list of priorities. McLaughlin also articulated a decidedly wonky but important slate of tech policy priorities beyond energy and HIT that included biometrics, nanotechnology, clean tech, mobile broadband, spectrum policy and cybersecurity. His office is looking for "game changers" in cybersecurity technology. For instance, he mentioned research into "small, tailored spaces where machines can talk to one another," given that the Internet can never be completed secured or a "cyber-economic" incentives that reward people for good cyber behavior. As he reflected, that would necessarily be complicated since researchers would have to be able to price risk, a complex proposition for the wizards of Wall Street in the best of scenarios. That research and development focus also includes HIT funding for architecture at NHIN Direct or Strategic Health IT Advanced Research Projects (SHARP) apps, like the Harvard SHARP grants.
McLaughlin also echoed Kundra's mantra of moving federal IT "from a compliance mentality to an innovation mentality," providing the example of launching new platforms like Data.ed.gov every three months at the Department of Education. Whether it's crowdsourcing grand national challenges with the new Challenge.gov or creating apps for healthy kids, McLaughlin emphasized the utility of platforms to stimulate innovation. In other words, Collaboration innovation in open government, in this context, isn't about apps per se but in stimulating their creation through prizes, open data and frameworks for development. A recent example of that can be found in the Health 2.0 Developer Challenge, which recently concluded out at the Health 2.0 Conference.
What does it all mean? If 2010 was the year of participatory platforms in open government, 2011 could be the year when implementation and policy choices begin to cascade. The biggest question may be whether the administration's strategy of putting government data to work results in cost savings or economic value, as opposed to headaches for agency IT staff tasked with extracting usable data from legacy infrastructure.
Federal CIO Vivek Kundra's keynote at Fedtalks, embedded below, delivered a valedictory for the progress of many of these initiatives over the past 20 months.
"What we need to be able to do is recognize that society has fundamentally changed. It used to be that, in the olden days, if you went back to the Agora, what would happen is that the public would petition their government, conduct commerce and socialize in a public square, a physical public square. Now, with the advent of broadband, with Moore's Law holding true for decades, with the cost of storage going from about $20 to .06 per gig in less than a decade, what you're seeing is unparalleled opportunities for everyday Americans to participate in ways that were structurally impossible before. What we have here is an opportunity to actually create and build upon a digital public square. In this new vision, where you have a digital public square, you actually have the ability for the American people to hold their government accountable in ways that were not possible before."
The five pillars of federal IT that Kundra listed were:
- Effectively manage the portfolio of 80 billion dollars in federal IT spending
- Create an open, transparent and participatory government
- Focus on the efficiency and effectiveness of the federal government. Cut waste.
- Focus on cybersecurity. "As more business processes move to the digital world, they become the target of nation states and organized crime."
- Find an innovative path for grand challenges that the nation faces
Open data "is not just data to hold government accountable," said Kundra. "It's also to drive innovation in next generation platforms to drive industry." Kundra cited more transparent management of IT projects through TechStat and project accountability personalized to individual CIOs and contractors, including subsequent cancellations of over budget or overdue projects. He also pointed to data center consolidation, a key issue given more than 2,000 federal data centers around the country and the associated energy footprint.
"We have the ability to get the American people to help us find solutions, as I mentioned, in this new digital public square, where they can be the co-creators of some of the solutions," he said, "whether that's in the context of building applications, whether that's in the context of finding value at the intersection of multiple datasets, or whether that's in the context of actually being an advocate around specific policy areas and shining light on some of the issues that we face or finding really innovative solutions."
Open Government at the Department of Veterans Affairs
Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) CTO Peter Levin delivered a comprehensive talk on the progress of the Department of Veterans Affairs open government plan at Fedtalks.
Notably, he used Prezi as a visual aid, departing from the Powerpoint slides that are endemic to government conferences. If presentation technology is a metaphor, Levin's choice offered a fresh look.