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2010 is the year of participatory platforms

Counting Gov 2.0 milestones and millstones with US CTO Aneesh Chopra.

In an exclusive interview last week at Gov 2.0 Summit, US CTO Aneesh
Chopra answered questions about the challenges of implementing open
government, reaching an increasingly mobile citizenry, addressing the
digital divide and stimulating innovation.

“If 2009 was about the data platform, Data.gov, I would argue that 2010 is about
thinking through the participatory platforms,” said Chopra.

As is the case everywhere open
government is in beta
, the question of whether crowdsourcing
national challenges at Challenge.gov
leads to better solutions
will remain outstanding for months time to come.

While Challenge.gov may be the
most visible platform, the first US CTO is thinking big in terms of
using technology to meet the policy goals of the Obama administration.
“We’ve also relaunched the Federal Register,” said Chopra,
“which I believe makes it a lot easier to digest the news of the
government so that new ecosystems may emerge that will galvanize
people to move on issues that maybe may not have been an area of focus
for them.”

What does the federal CTO do?

Chopra, who is perhaps most familiar to the American people as the
Indian
George Clooney
” after Jon Stewart poked a bit of fun at the open
government IT execs at the White House on the “Daily Show,” has an
unusual place in American history. In fact, it’s unprecedented.

Tim O’Reilly made
a case for Chopra
last April, when the news of his selection
leaked. Tim put the role of a federal CTO in the
context of someone who provides “visionary leadership, to help a
company (or in this case, a government) explore the transformative
potential of new technology.”

Given the immense challenges that the United States faces at home
and abroad in marshaling the generative resources of its people and
industries, the timing for Chopra’s appointment couldn’t have been
more apt. While Gawker
tagged him for a “chummy confirmation hearing,” he earned the public
support of many luminaries in the tech industry, like Dan
Bricklin
and Mitch
Kapor
.

When I asked Chopra about what he actually does as a CTO, he
focused first on his role as a special assistant to the president. “I
make sure that the technology, data and innovation aspects of any
given policy that comes before the president are thought through and
are considered in a little more aggressive way,” he said. “In a sense,
I’m issue-spotting for the president.”

He also talked about a convener’s role, both internally and
externally, defining standards policy and “trying to get voices from
across the federal government to have a consensus voice.” Given the
multitude of government workers, it’s safe to say that could eat up
some hours. (On a lighter note, Chopra also noted that the CTO’s role
does not extend to the presidential “ObamaBerry,”
though he does provide tech support in the occasional meeting.)

For more on this count, see Chopra’s interviews with Marc Steiner
about the role
of the federal CTO
and this video
with Sarah Granger
.

Mobile apps and APIs

One area where the federal CTO has embraced the strategy prevalent
in Silicon Valley is focusing on platform development, particularly in
the mobile space. After all, the president’s insistence on a
smartphone is matched by the preferences of an increasingly mobile
electorate, which feeds into the importance of providing applications
or e-services to citizens wherever they are.

“The more we rely on APIs and app development, the more we’re
naturally seeing mobile applications come,” said Chopra. “A: they’re
easier to develop and B: there’s a whole ecosystem around making them
simpler.”

Chopra also cited the call by the president to nearly double the
amount of spectrum available for mobile broadband, or the FCC’s “white spaces” plan.
As Kim Hart reported in Politico’s Morning
Tech
, the FCC’s position is that “unleashing white spaces is the
first significant block of spectrum made available for unlicensed use
in more than 20 years, and it will build on the success of Wi-Fi,
Bluetooth, garage door openers and cordless phones — all that use
unlicensed airwaves.”

See the FCC fact sheet and
the New
York Times’ story on unlicensed spectrum
for more.

On tech policy, Chopra said that they’re “injecting” mobility into
key areas, like the $4 billion White House Office and Science
Technology R&D portfolio. He also said that after spectrum auctions,
the first thing that’s going to get financed is the development of a
national public safety interoperable broadband network. “The goal is
that by the end of the year we will have a coherent mobile broadband
strategy for first responders,” he said.

Addressing the digital divide

One of the challenges with a technology-fueled agenda is empowering
more citizens to participate in the digital revolution.

When asked about the digital divide, Chopra pointed to the FCC’s
National Broadband Plan. “When they
published their report, the president asked for guidance,” he said.
“Digital literacy is among the top priorities, and is an important
place to comment.”

He also pointed to an important issue in the future: implementation
challenges mandated by the healthcare reform bill. Launching Healthcare.gov quickly was a
responsibility of the CTO of HHS, Todd Park. Chopra looked ahead to
how technology will be used as an extension of policy. The new law
“called for standards for best customer experience for people that
will be interfacing with insurance exchanges,” said Chopra, noting the
“45 million Americans who will be accessing public services for the
first time.”

Lessons learned from implementing open government

It comes as no shock to observers and practitioners alike that the
implementation of open
government
is much harder than issuing initiatives and
directives.

Chopra allowed that the “single biggest area where the variation
is maybe not to the best” was in the data inventory of high data value
sets at agencies. That said, he pointed to the Transportation
Department’s infrastructure for data validation and the importance of
allowing agencies to innovate within broad requirements.

“We never would have designed the transportation infrastructure
architecture program if we were forced to do it in a top-down way,” he
said. The question, as he chose to frame it, is “how do we create
enough central goal setting, with enough freedom, that would tap into
creativity and entrepreneurial thinking at the agency level?”

While there are areas where innovation in open government hasn’t
lived up to expectations, one lesson Chopra pointed to was in
identifying innovative ideas and then rapidly scaling them. That’s
true of innovation generally, he said, from having the idea to proof
point, and then moving proof point to scale. “I think we have
delivered on the former. The latter is where there will be a challenge
going forward.”

What apps have come out of open government data? Chopra highlighted
the work of Park at HHS, where the agency is working on making
community health information as useful as weather data
. If the
mission of the agency is to improve health of citizens, Chopra argued
that it was greatly aided by convening technologists and government
healthcare officials to feature the development of healthcare
apps
. They “didn’t innovate on technical design of better machine
readability or better parsing strategies,” said Chopra. “It was the
ecosystem development that was the innovation. “

Closing the IT gap

One of the most pressing issues for Chopra and his counterpart,
federal CIO Vivek Kundra, is whether IT can be used to close the
yawning gap in federal and state government budgets.

So why does the IT gap persist? “It’s because the DNA of our
federal agencies — from procurement policy to how they go about
issuing requirements — that whole process for acquisition has largely
rewarded the acquisition of yesterday’s approach, as opposed to
investing in the adoption of first proof points of the new approach,”
said Chopra. “To the extent that I have a particular voice and role in
this conversation, it is how do we more closely align the R&D and the
innovation ecosystem as first adoption points in government, as
opposed to last adoption points.”

Chopra and Kundra discuss the IT gap in the following Gov 2.0
Summit video:

Untangling the issue will not be easy, but it’s crucial if
government IT is to improve. Wired’s report on HP’s
“hostage”-like relationship with the Navy
highlights just one of
the challenges. The move by OMB to cut
and revise $337 million worth of IT contracts
shows some
seriousness on the side of the CIO to address failing projects.

Now, it remains to be seen if the nation’s first CTO can use the
dynamism that has driven the information economy to make government
more efficient, effective and nimble.

For more insight, watch Tim O’Reilly’s conversation with Chopra from earlier this year, below.

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