LiveBlogging: OnDC Speaker Andrew McLaughlin, Deputy US CTO

He’s been on the job now for 3 1/2 months. He moved here from San Francisco. I’ll talk about the theory of what we are trying to do in the White House now, why it’s hard, and then take a look at the president’s innovation agenda, and what you can do if you choose.

Our strategy is rooted in Moore’s law. Explosion in computing power, storage, connections. Moore predicted that the number of transistors on a chip would double about every 18-24 months. The terrabyte of memory you have now would have cost you a couple million dollars in the late 90s and taken up the size of a refridgerator.

It is virtually free to communicate worldwide. Commodity computing (or cloud computing) is brining to businesses and consumers staggering amounts of computing power for little or no money. Gmail’s 8 GB of free email storage, Flickr’s unlimited photo storage are examples.

We are trying to bring this into the work of government. Big question is, “Can government move from a core-controlled to an edge-empowered system?” In the way that communications have.

Tim O’Reilly likes to talk about the “Government as Platform.”

Air traffic control system that we had was based on 60s and 70s radio technology and a 1930s model. As a result, you get system-wide problem like weather in NY delaying flights elsewhere. A better system is where each plane can individually and autonomously determine its own best course, maintaining contact with the central system, but empowered and on the edge.

You can draw other examples from Emergency responder communications, carrying devices that let them communicate. Empowering the edge.

We think of all this as Government 2.0. The promise we bring is to make government more transparent, more participatory. To enable collaboration within the government. (This is exceedingly hard to do in the current environment.) Costs should go down.

Some examples of what we are trying to pull off:

  • Data.gov initially had 46 data feeds, now it’s up to 150,000. Government data can be found here, mashed up. We said to agencies that data paid for by taxpayers should be online in machine-readable format. XML, comma-delimited, geo-coded data. Tons of awesome data sets are now online. Thisweknow.com draws its data from Data.gov, showing how many crimes, polluters, cancer diagnoses, etc. Datamasher.org lets you make visualizations out of the data. Take any two datasets, choose visualization you want to see. Then each visualization is stored permanently for others to see. One mashup was voter’s weight plus how they voted in 2008!
  • Fedthread and GovPulse are built on the Federal Register. There has been a whole industry around the Federal Register. Last Thursday, the entire Federal Register came online, back to 2000.  Within a few hours, Princeton developers had built Fedthread.com so you can be notified of anything relevant to you. Govpulse tries to create dialogue around Federal Register entries.
  • Flyontime.us uses government data to check routes, airines, on time percentages. You can search for wait times in security lines. They’ll take data from users (mobile phones) start and end times. Crowd source database.
  • One company launched a game called FBI Fugitive Concentration.

For entrepreneurs, the sky’s the limit on what can be built on top of government data.

We have also launched Apps.gov — an application store for federal IT managers to sign up for per seat online applications. Salesforce.com has a number of offerings through this. We are trying to get more federal IT managers to think about online services.

SeeClickFix allows you to report an issue to a website if something needs fixed. It gets reported to the right agency and then you get notified when it is fixed. You can sign up for alerts for a particular area.

So now, what are the headaches in getting adoption?

There are a lot of online services like Flickr that we would like to use to communicate with people. But there are acquisition and procurement rules. Must the government, before we use a free online service, go through a competitive bidding process. So before we put something up on Facebook, do we have to do a tender, etc. We have figured that out. We can do it. But our use of services has to be done in an advertising-free way.

We have been able to get the GSA to sign an agreement once with certain providers which then allows any agency to use it. But there is an Anti-Deficiency Act that causes problems. The company’s standard terms of service maybe can’t be accepted by the government — such as unlimited liability. Location of dispute resolution is an issue. (The fed government isn’t subject to any state law.) So we’ve had to negotiate a lot of individual deals. This has slowed us down.

This is the biggest problem: the whole bureaucratic culture of the federal government has to change — the idea of hoarding information because it makes you valuable. That has to change. We need to provide data, be a platform.

On Jan. 21st, Pres. Obama issued his first memorandum about transparency, participation, and collaboration. Data.gov, recovery.gov is a way to track the money from the Recovery Act. New features are being added, a ways to go before it is really useful. The IT dashboard — it.usaspending.gov — helps us assign every IT project a color, green, yellow, or red. You can see ratings for every IT program in every agency — to see if they are on time, under budget, evaluation so far.

Within the White House we have a CTO and CIO. The Open Government Initiative is a collection of different projects, trying to drive agencies to think about capabilities of internet, and what cloud computing makes possible, and to cook up projects with the private sector as well.

There are discussions about data driven decisions (like patent questions) and values-based decisions (like the death penalty and abortion.) Are we trying to get a sense of where public opinion lies? The old way of throwing up a draft document and asking for input is not all that useful in the age of the internet.

The marijuana legalization crowd has been most effective in elevating their issue to the top of the agenda for the “Ask the President” online feature.

We have an OMB Directive on Open Government that will be coming out soon. Every agency should develop its own open government plan. Each agency plan should be open to public comment. We want every agency to publish a schedule for its data so more data will go online. We’ve experimented with getting employees to step up and help us improve performance of agencies. One challenge was to cut waiting time for VA benefits. A wounded veteran has a delay of 30-days up to 9-months, just to confirm someone is a veteran entitled to benefits. We’ve asked the 19,000 employees of the VA to help us figure out how we can speed this up.

Department of HHS just held their first code-a-thon (a very silicon valley idea). They are working on CONNECT, a software gateway for nationwide health information. This hackathon was in August. Brought 100 programmers. Shows that you can do open source programming in a government setting.

So changing culture is the hardest thing we have to do. We’ve been saying to entrepreneurial sector that just more online data won’t make government faster and more effective. We want them to all do two things: 1) ask what data your country can give to you and 2) ask what data, mashups, and code you can give to your government.

Pres. has already doubled budget for some agencies for Fundamental R&D. Pres. set investment target of 3% of GDP in R&D. That will require more than just government. That would be biggest R&D percent since space race.

We are spending a lot on Physical Infrastructure and Broadband. $7.2 billion available in stimulus package for this. We are doing a lot with cognitive radio, quantum computing, parallel computing, etc.

We are trying to support open capital markets that allocate resources to most promising ideas. We know that firms with less than 20 employees, esp. in high tech area, really outperform. Focusing on small firms makes a lot of sense. We are trying to reduce fees and increase lending to small businesses. SBIC Debentures program. Pres. has proposed to eliminate capital gains tax on small businesses.

You can download the document and read the details.

Different regions have different forms of competitive advantage. We want to push regional planning grants to take advantage of regional advantages. Network for business incubators — $50 million — especially in hard-hit areas.

Trying to figure out how to leverage our employee-base to create breakthroughs on our national priorities. We hope energy information can be made available (smart grid) so people can reduce expenditures, consumers can control homes, devices in homes, and contribute to country’s energy independence. Stimulus act puts tremendous amount of money aside to go to health care providers, so we can get improvements in clinical outcomes, which means making electronic medical records available.

We’d like the US to be the world leader in light, cheap, powerful, long-lasting batteries. We’ve been making loans to auto companies who are working on these things. There is no reason our cars can’t learn to avoid each other and to reach destinations more easily: this requires upgrade to highway systems and car communication technologies.

All of these efforts are within the limited bounds of what the federal government is able to do. The bulk of the activity, of course, is going to have to come from the private sector.

I’m on LinkedIn. I look forward to connecting with you.

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