So far, I’ve found the Obama administration’s promise of a tech savvy government to be underwhelming in implementation — but now I’m starting to get my hopes up again. The White House has just named a new “chief information officer” with powers over federal technology spending, public access to government data, information-sharing between agencies, and security and privacy issues — and it’s Vivek Kundra, Washington, D.C.’s chief technology officer, according to the New York Times.
Kundra says he intends to use modern tools like cloud computing to improve agencies’ efficiency, and create a new site — data.gov — as a place to put “vast amounts of government data into the public domain.” This comes at a time when Congressman Mike Honda, who represents much of Silicon Valley, and outside groups like the Sunlight Foundation are successfully pushing for the same thing in the legislative branch (check out this great article by Tim O’Reilly for a lot more on that). Outside groups of any political stripe could potentially mine this data to discover how the government spends taxpayer dollars, and aggregate government data about business, social programs and much more in ways that aren’t currently possible.
In his 19 months in D.C., 34-year old Kundra has already pushed his employees to use Twitter and post city contracts to YouTube. He “hopes to allow drivers to pay parking tickets or renew their driver’s licenses on Facebook,” according to the Times article. Because Facebook doesn’t currently offer a full-fledged payment platform to enable that sort of service (hey Facebook product guys, what’s going on with that?), perhaps he’s referring to integrating Facebook Connect into a government payment site to enable easy sign-on for users? Or maybe we’ll see a “DMV” application developed by “The U.S. Government” pop up on Facebook, using PayPal or another third-party service to pay for re-registration fees.
By making troves of government data available to the public, Kundra, Honda and others pushing this effort are also creating new opportunities for watchdog groups, media organizations and web entrepreneurs to build new products — and perhaps new business models? Nonprofit investigative journalism site ProPublica is already offering more detailed analysis of how the federal stimulus bill is being spent than the official site intended to do so, Recovery.gov. In a smaller example of what third-party access can mean, take a look at these stats from a contest Kundra’s office ran in D.C. last fall asking for developers to create apps for things like crime reports and street repair schedules. Called “Apps for Democracy,” it prompted 47 applications in 30 days — worth an estimated $2 million and one to two years in internal procurement time and external contracting expenses.
Presidential site whitehouse.gov — which so far has offered limited ways to respond to government policies — recovery.gov and other new Obama administration sites are now looking less like lip-service to the power of the web and more like the start of something real. But there’s still a lot of unanswered questions. For example, while Kundra has previously been rumored to be a candidate for the still-unfilled position of Chief Technology Officer, it’s not clear how his new position will fit with that one.
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