Open Government Goes to the Theater at Fedtalks

What did I learn at Fedtalks? Plenty.
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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 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 every three months at the Department of Education. Whether it's crowdsourcing grand national challenges with the new 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:

  1. Effectively manage the portfolio of 80 billion dollars in federal IT spending
  2. Create an open, transparent and participatory government
  3. Focus on the efficiency and effectiveness of the federal government. Cut waste.
  4. Focus on cybersecurity. "As more business processes move to the digital world, they become the target of nation states and organized crime."
  5. 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.

One of the flagship open government accomplishments this year will likely be the launch of an online 'Blue Button' for veterans to download their EHRs by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The button addresses a specific egregious issue for veterans, particularly the disabled: having to fill out paperwork again and again. For servicemen and women suffering from injuries or disabilities, that requirement as particularly cruel. Levin pulled no punches: "It was a stupid system. People can't navigate it because of their service to the country. Duplicating disability information was huge issue.

Given President Obama's obvious pride in the announcement, expect continued high visibility for the progress of the initiative. Notably, the Blue Button was delivered quickly for a government IT project, delivered on October 7th, just over a month since its August 4th kickoff. That Blue Button, the result of a public-private partnership, was part of federal CTO Chopra's open government pitch to Silicon Valley.

Opening government at NASA

The leader in open government at the federal level has been NASA. And one of its shining stars has been Chris Kemp, NASA's first CTO for IT. What's important to note however is that this particular CTO isn't infatuated with technology for technology's sake. In his presentation at Fedtalks, Kemp emphasized the need to focus on the mission and how innovation that leads to breakthroughs is catalyzed at institutions. "The satellite system isn't a breakthrough," he said. "Never getting lost is a breakthrough."

To deliver on NASA's mission, Kemp talked about needing to innovate on how government innovates. He offered a simple test for innovation: "Are we developing tech that society values?" To evaluate his success, consider the fact that Rackspace will be using OpenStack in tens of thousands of servers this fall - and that Openstack uses the cloud computing technology developed at NASA.

What were Kemp's keys to getting innovation right? First, understand tomorrow's workforce. According to Kemp's figure, currently Generation Y (or "millennials) make up about 23% of workforce. In 2014, Generation Y will be over 47% of workforce. Kemp sees Gen Y as connected, flexible and collaborative workers. Moreover, they have different heroes. In 1960, they used to dream of being an astronaut, he said. "Now it's Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg." The rest of his formula for innovation is displayed below in his Kemp's presentation from Fedtalks:

Free the Nerds!

One approach to stimulating innovation in organizations inside (and outside of) government that has legs is to tap into the collective intelligence of geeks. While the great debate of geek vs nerd may hinge upon social aptitude, the impact that smart, passionate tech wizards can have on the world is no longer in dispute, given how deeply embedded technology and the Internet has become. Reports that Internet users will exceed 2 billion this year point to how much the code of those same geeks and nerds matter now to online privacy, education or the operating system for democracy. One unabashed nerd whose code choices matter to millions daily is Craig Newmark, the creator of Craigslist. For Craig, trust is the new black." Newmark's "government list" has included quiet advocacy for open government and transparency, including support for the Sunlight Foundation's transparency efforts, veterans benefits and media reform. Newmark's full conversation with Federal News Radio anchor Chris Dorobek at Fedtalks is embedded below:

What does 'free the nerds mean? "The rank and file knows what's going on, they just need a means of telling the boss," said Newmark at Fedtalks. "I'm talking to a lot of alpha Dilberts quietly. People of good will, in organizations, want to do the job. They just need a means of telling the boss that and a commitment from the boss to make that happen."

Newmark said the biggest barrier to getting good work done is that information transfer from the rank and file to management, and the freedom and funding for geeks to work the stuff that matters. "That's true of any organization," he said. "It's like a game of telephone. Tell the boss what he wants to hear to get ahead... Sometimes the barrier is culture. Sometimes in an environment where the boss is replaced every four years, getting permanent culture change or commitment is also hard."

Department of Defense deploys global EHR network

If you follow the health IT space, the statistics from the Military Health System that Captain Michael Weiner cited were eye openers. The Department of Defense (DoD) has the largest number of patient encounters per day in the world, with over 140,000 recorded daily. The system has over 9 million beneficiaries worldwide, 77,000+ clinical users, supports 110,000+ end user devices and covers every time zone.

Given Captain Weiner's observation that 100% of personnel have an electronic health record (EHR), it's also safe to say that in this particular area, a government entity is way ahead of the country. To that point, Weiner cited a New England Journal of Medicine survey found that in early 2009, only 1.5% of U.S. hospitals had comprehensive EHR system. Only 7.6% US hospitals had a basic EHR system. And only 17% of U.S. hospitals have electronic medication services. Given the expansion of EHRs through the stimulus spending and meaningful use standards will bring that percentage of implementation up, 10 lessons learned on EHRs by the DoD are worth reviewing:

  1. Choose the Right EHR
  2. Test drive before you buy
  3. Hardware matters
  4. EHRs should be intuitive
  5. Training approach should be active: see one, do one, teach one
  6. Leverage the Web for EHR hosting
  7. Do not constrain medical providers with wires
  8. Leverage usable and easily compatible data
  9. Empower staff from the beginning
  10. Empower patients as partners

Cybersecurity Month

Fedtalks also featured several speakers focused on cybersecurity trends, which was appropriate given that it's National Cybersecurity Month. "You can't get people to change behavior just by telling them what to do," said Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA). For those that want to "stay safe online," Kaiser suggested adopting the month's mantra: "Stop, Think, Connect."

Gigi Schumm, Vice President & General Manager, Symantec Public Sector, shared a personal anecdote where critical thinking was relevant. She was phished through a friend's compromised Facebook account recently, a phenomenon that might be described as "phashing." Symantec released its 2010 Critical Infrastructure Protection Study this month, putting some numbers behind her words. Her speech is embedded below:

Going Beyond Apps Contests

I've been talking with iStrategy Labs founder Peter Corbett for months about the evolution of government 2.0. In May, our interview focused on how apps contests are unlocked government innovation. That progress has only continued to evolve, including the recent launch of the new World Bank data site and Apps for Development.

A key issue that Corbett highlighted for apps contests is sustainability. "No one has a market where someone can say 'I'm going to be a sustaining person as a civic innovator'," he said.

Corbett used his platform at Fedtalks to call attention to a number of other initiatives, like the growth of "civic hacker networks" and intra-city collaboration. "How many of you have heard of Civic Commons," he asked, pointing to the launch of a code-sharing initiative last month. "Opengovtracker was built in two days by two developers who were really passionate about it," he said. "Do stuff that matters."

He also called out a personal concern. "I think people are addicted to the shiny app syndrome," he said. "The real thing we need to focus on is STEM."

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