W. David Stephenson on the Federal CIO: Vivek Kundra

Stephenson’s Introduction

I’m David Stephenson from Stephenson Strategies in Boston. I’m an eGov and Enterprise 2.0 strategist and theorist.

(NOTE: Although “Democratizing Data” will not be an O’Reilly title, Stephenson continues to develop this content for future publishing.)

Tim O’Brien: Tell me what that means what do you do for your client? I’m assuming your client would be government.

David Stephenson: My particular emphasis is on empowering the general public to really become no longer just passive recipients of government services, but instead active co-creators and I’ve done this particularly in the past in the field of homeland security and emergency communications. Now that has led me into the broader field. Vivek Kundra and I have done a lot of talking about it and we’ve been working on a book together. It’s unclear at this point whether he will be able to continue with that book, called “democratizing data”. [The book] talks about making organizations, whether government agencies or businesses to be data centric using metadata. And then being able to supply that to all of your workforce, to do public feeds, the data to help build faith in government through transparency and even the most astonishing thing when he did it in District of Columbia with their Apps for Democracy contest where you actually take those data feeds and do mash ups and create real services.

Stephenson on Vivek Kundra (Federal CIO)

TO: You mentioned Vivek Kundra. He was just appointed as the Federal CIO. He’s going to be working within the OMB (Office of Management and Budget). Could you tell me a little bit about the work you’ve done with him?

DS: Well, I was brought in one with very limited aspect, after they had already established a very admirable record in terms of transparency and innovation, that was basically to do a blueprint for how to transform the existing programs to make the District the model of governmental transparency in the world, basically. And that is the kind of guy Vivek Kundra is. He just doesn’t settle for second best. He really wants to try to make sure that everything they’re doing is state of the art and pushing the envelope.

TO: Could you talk a little bit about your experience as someone who worked with Octo as a consultant?

DS: One of the things that we can look for is the emphasis he’s going to place on real performance. He treats each of the technology project there as a stock. They are constantly evaluated. You know exactly where you stand at any one time by virtue of the fact they have a series of displays around the office that give you real time data on customer satisfaction with projects and a variety of other objective metrics that he uses to evaluate projects. And at the end of the quarter, if your project is not delivering customer satisfaction, then you risk having the project being terminated and that’s it.

TO: That reminds me of some of the commitment to statistics, user analytics, that people at Google talk about. He did have a partnership with Google. Did you know anything about that?

DS: Oh, yes, very aggressive. They had at least, I believe, 29,000 seats with Google apps, very open to using open source where it is appropriate and very much driven by objective data. One of the things I should really emphasize that sets the District apart, and I think we will definitely see more of on the federal level now with his appointment, is doing real time data feeds. District of Columbia, with its city-wide data warehouse, publishes more than 250 different real time data files on everything from violent crime to building permits and things of that sort. And they are constantly expanding that list. And by virtue of having that real time data, particularly when its geospatial data, it allows you to do all sorts of clever mash ups. It’s a tremendous thing for entrepreneurs to be able to capitalize on that.

They did in District of Columbia, he did a very, very innovative project, where he allowed, had a one month contest with some very modest cash prizes, where people were encouraged to take one or more of those data feeds, mash them up into an application which had to be Open Source so that it could then be copied and improved upon, and it had to be broadly construed as being in the public interest. They were not more specific than that and did not want to limit what happened. They came out with 47 different usable apps in the space of a month, total cost was $50,000. You figure the return on investment was around 4000%, if you could imagine.

TO: He focused on feeds, transparency… getting the data out. But the one thing that struck me as the most revolutionary thing that he did in the Fenty administration was that he videotaped meetings with vendors. Maybe if the federal government did something like this, they could have prevented the complete disaster that was the FBI’s Virtual Case File project. I forget who did that, but it was something like $150 million wasted.

DS: I don’t think anybody is rushing to take credit for that. I think the important thing is the mix of all of the different techniques he’s using. The videos and also they use videos very extensively for training so that they have a very innovative new intranet that they introduced several months ago and is giving a lot of data to the entire workforce. One of the things that I think is terribly important about what he has done, is he regards every worker, not just elites, every single worker as a knowledge worker now and tries to figure out, based on your role, what is the appropriate mix of real time data you need in order to be able to do your job more effectively.

Then they had training videos as well, as well as the ones with the vendor meetings. He basically is open to all of these new innovations. No single one of them is the be all and end all. But the combination makes for a very, very effective way of really revolutionizing the procurements, day-to-day operations of government.

TO: What was the biggest challenge in your work with Octo?

DS: That’s a good question and I’m not really sure. One of the things that was, frankly, very exciting about it was that he was so interested in pushing the envelope and being innovative that I sort of went into it in a little more modest than what I was suggesting and he always urged me to be as bold as possible. And the ideas that I suggested which was extremely refreshing. That doesn’t mean that if you propose something bold that he would necessarily follow through with it. He was at least open to hearing those ideas at the beginning of the process and then would decide what was appropriate or not.

TO: Tell me a little bit about the book. What is this book you’re working on? Its called “Democratizing Data.” (NOTE: Although “Democratizing Data” will not be an O’Reilly title, Stephenson continues to develop this content for future publishing.)

DS: The vision of the book is that the variety of small incremental changes in technology over the last 10 years or so, specifically being able to tag data with metadata and then to syndicate that so that you’re able to distribute it on a real time basis, allows for a fundamental transformation in organizations. And that is to… instead of having your data, which in the past, when you think about it, really a relatively small effect on people’s daily lives, because it was either capture in data warehouses, or was being analyzed by relatively small number of people specifically trained as analyst using pricey business intelligence packages and things of that sort. Instead you have this option now of being able to deliver real time actionable data to a wide variety of people based on their role with a variety of different impacts.

In the case of… within the workplace, it allows workers for the first time in many cases to have real time access to actionable data that will help them do their jobs better. When you think about it, it’s actually rather amazing that people are able to do their jobs as well as they can, because in the past they have not had access to that real time information. It’s been based on past history, hunches, whatever it may be. Then the same data can be used again for external feeds that are terribly important right now to rebuild faith in government or in businesses by allowing an unprecedented degree of transparency and taking sort of a “don’t trust us, track us” approach to things where you put the data out there about your operations and say to watchdog groups, or the public or the media analyze it for yourself. Don’t take what we’ve said on face value.

I think this will be terribly important and a priority for Vivek with recovery.gov which is the centerpiece of actual delivery of the stimulus money. They know that there is skepticism about whether this will be spent effectively. They’re doing a tremendous job on making sure those tools are going to be there so that we can judge for ourselves whether its being effectively spent.

The final component which the District of Columbia really blaze the trail on was with the Apps for Democracy Contest they ran last fall. The District publishes more than 250 real time data feeds on everything from crime to building permits. They have this great contest ran for a month total cost of $50,000, absolute chump change when it came to the government; and basically they threw all of these 250 or so data feeds open to developers that come up with an Open Source app that use one or more of those. In some respects, the public interest, they weren’t more specific than that because they did not want to artificially restrict what people did.

In the space of one month, they came up with 47 different usable applications. Vivek figured the ROI on that was about 4,000%, if you can imagine — really an amazing model for this new vision of one of the things he really emphasizes is what he calls the Digital Public Square. That really allows the general public to be full partners in co-creating services and debating policies and things of that sort. One of the things I love about him, I think it takes maybe an immigrant to the USA the way he was to really be able to do this. Those of us who have grown up in a democracy may not fully appreciate what a fully revolutionary thing this is.

One of my favorite anecdotes, I was saying to him one time “geez, if you ever get a chance go to the Constitution Center in Philadelphia. It has all these wonderful exhibits about the constitution and all sorts of interactive stuff.” He said, “yes, I was actually married there. I don’t know many people, if anybody, he may have been the only person that was ever married at the constitution center. Mr. Kundra goes to Washington kind of stuff.

TO: The DC government isn’t nearly as massive as the federal government. Do you have any fear it’s going to get into this massive democracy and its going to consume it?

DS: That’s always a risk, but I’m reminded in times like this of the old Chinese ideogram for crisis that combines one for danger and opportunity and I think that’s what we find ourselves in right now. On one hand the danger is immediately apparent. All we have to do is read the headlines and watch CNN to know what incredible danger we face.

But that same thing leaves an incredible opportunity for change because a lot of past practices have been thoroughly discredited. I think people are much more open now to radical transformation and just the whole way the President is approaching things now of not going sequentially through recovery for the economic situation and then taking all on health care and then some of these other issues but instead to do all those things at the same time, I think that’s very much the opportunity we have here of really radical transformation. So I think he’s the right kind for the right time.

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