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White House releases IT Dashboard as open source code

IT Dashboard can create greater transparency for government bodies.

The White House has released the software code for its IT Dashboard and TechStat toolkit. The initiative was coordinated through Civic Commons, a code-sharing project incubated within Code for America that helps governments share technology for the public good, with support from OpenPlans. Civic Commons staff worked with REI Systems, the contractor that originally built the IT Dashboard for the United States Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to prepare the code for release under an open source license. That work included a security audit, documentation, and a licensing review of the software’s components.

IT Dashboard

“The creation of the IT Dashboard was a significant step forward in making government programs more transparent and accountable,” said Tim O’Reilly. “Its open source release is a huge step forward — and a model for other government programs — in showing how to reduce the costs and increase the effectiveness of government by sharing tools developed by one agency with others who also need them.”

A live demonstration of the opensourced code for IT Dashboard is now online. The IT Dashboard code is available at SourceForge.net and is released under a GNU Public License (GPL). A bug tracker and other resources are also online.

Karl Fogel, who has been working on open sourcing the federal dashboard for months at Civic Commons, shares more context and technical details about how the IT Dashboard was open sourced in this post.

“We launched the IT Dashboard and the TechStat Accountability Sessions to improve IT transparency and accountability across the Federal Government,” wrote federal CIO Vivek Kundra at the White House blog. “The Dashboard has helped us shine a light on IT projects, providing performance data to fuel TechStat reviews, which have led to over $3 billion in cost reductions.”

For those unfamiliar with the nation’s chief information officer, Kundra is the man who has proposed and is now entrusted with implementing sweeping federal IT reforms. He’s been applying the IT Dashboard to track IT spending from within the White House Office of Management and Budget, where he serves. During Sunshine Week, Kundra went to the white board to describe good government at the White House. Video of his presentation is embedded below:

With the release, an application that was developed on behalf of government agencies can now be implemented and further customized by other potential government users and developers at the city, state or international level. CIOs from across the United States and around the world have expressed interest in implementing the IT Dashboard in their organizations, including aarten Hillenaar of the Netherlands, Kyle Schafer in West Virginia and Jason DeHaan of the City of Chicago.

“We don’t have to build it, we don’t have to buy it, we don’t have to procure it,” said Greg Elin, chief data officer for the Federal Communications Commission. “What’s not to like?” The Office of the United States CIO has also launched CIO tools, which aggregates all information about the IT Dashboard and TechStat Toolkit.

“What makes it attractive to them is that the Dashboard sets a baseline level of accountability that many senior managers feel will help them detect problems early, yet does so without imposing too great a burden on the people closest to the projects, that is, those responsible for the inputs from which the overviews are generated,” wrote Fogel at CivicCommons.org. “Establishing such a baseline is a cultural act as much as it is a technological or management one.  Once regular measurement is being done, it becomes much more difficult to slip backwards into complacency. There may be genuine disagreement about how to measure costs and return on investment, but that is a productive discussion to have.  The Dashboard thus acts as a quality ratchet not merely in IT accountability, but in dialogue about how IT investments are measured at all. “

There is an important cautionary note to share with government entities that adopt the IT Dashboard code: performance improvements gained through increased transparency will need to be grounded on accurate data. According to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released this March, while OMB has made improvements to its Dashboard, “further work is needed by agencies and OMB to ensure data accuracy.”

… inaccuracies can be attributed to weaknesses in how agencies report data to the Dashboard, such as providing erroneous data submissions, as well as limitations in how OMB calculates the ratings. Until the selected agencies and OMB resolve these issues, ratings will continue to often be inaccurate and may not reflect current program performance. GAO is recommending that selected agencies take steps to improve the accuracy and reliability of Dashboard information and OMB improve how it rates investments relative to current performance and schedule variance.

A new transparency ecosystem

While this analysis from the GAO does not detract from the significance of the release of the IT Dashboard as open source code, it does serve as a reminder that data-driven decisions made with it will rely upon accurately reported data. That necessity, however, will not come as news to the many chief information officers working on opening government data repositories around the country and globe.

The growth of an international open government data movement is one of the notable developments toward greater transparency in the 21st century. Now there’s reason to believe that the release of this IT Dashboard has the potential to catalyze the use of the IT Dashboard as a platform to go with them. “Look at how many states and countries have launched data portals modeled after Data.gov,” said Elin. “Authorities — and enterprises — everywhere will similarly adopt the IT Dashboard, too.”

Elin anticipates that more will come of this release of code than adoption of the platform. “Come back a year from now and you’ll see a nascent ecosystem growing around the IT Dashboard with vendors offering support, add-ins and extensions,” he said. “Data.gov, the Community Health Data Initiative, the National Broadband Map, the IT Dashboard: these are the kind of assets that will just keep giving and giving.”

Whether an entire new ecosystem of code based upon the IT Dashboard platform blossoms or not, it has set an important precedent. “The software is less interesting to me than how they released the software in the first place,” said Gunnar Hellekson, chief technology strategist for Red Hat, US Public Sector. “The government has been releasing source code for years, but there’s no common policy or understanding of how it should be done. Today’s announcement is important because it creates a prominent, very public footpath for other agencies. This wasn’t a set of patches, it was a whole application. Other agencies can now use their process, this footpath, to release their own projects.”

The most important element of making the IT Dashboard open source may be the model for code release. As open source plays a part in open government at the State Department and other federal agencies, that kind of leadership from the federal CIO is important. Whether it’s Energy.gov or House.gov moving to Drupal open source matters more than ever. In a time when every level of government is facing painful budget decisions, new tools that provide more transparency are more than timely. They’re necessary.

“US taxpayers want accountability, transparency, and cost savings in IT spending at all levels of government,” said Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, the organization spearheading the sharing of the IT Dashboard,. “Since they’ve already paid for an IT Dashboard with their federal taxes, their cities and states shouldn’t have to buy it again. We saw a real opportunity here to help all governments work better.”

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  • http://n/a Carl

    Your demo link is broken.

    Thanks!

  • Mark Fuqua

    That is a very impressive site…excellent example of a great flash site.

    Sorry Steve (and Apple fanbois), Flash and Flex are good tools when used correctly. Just like HTML 5 and the canvas goodies to come, if you are a bad developer, the site will be bad…if you know your stuff, it will be quite nice (maybe not as nice as a Flash/Flex site, but pretty nice).

  • Test Test

    So totally NOT impressed. This is like saying “I went on a diet. Instead of 80,000 calories a day, I’m eating 70,000. How many other dieters cut 10 thousand calories?”

    Look let’s assume the 38 projects cost an average of 200 million each. That’s 7.6 billion. He saved 3 billion by terminating 4 of the worst. Now we have 34 projects, at a mere 3.6 billion. Much better, huh?

    OK, now how many data entry screens does each of these 34 projects have? 100? 200? Let’s assume 200. OK, so now we’re delivering software at 500,000 per data entry screen.

    Other people charge $500 per data entry screen. That means the federal government is only being billed 1000 times more than it should be.

    What a bargin!

    Now, let’s assume, I’m off by a factor of ten. There’s 2,000 data entry screens per project. OK, I accounted for my margin of error and my bad estimates.

    The federal government is only paying 100 times more than it should be. Sorry about that. Doesn’t really matter does it?

    Are you impressed with these slides now?

    I’m not.

    Show me cost per data entry screen/web form, and show me that number under $5,000 or shut up and admit you’re ripping the taxpayers off.

    • http://radar.oreilly.com/alexh Alex Howard

      @ “Test Test” – There’s no question that the federal government isn’t getting all of the value it invest in IT back. That said, you spent a lot of time spent analyzing the use of the IT Dashboard and none at all on what open sourcing the code for use in states or internationally might mean. That might be missing the proverbial forest for the trees.

  • Test Test

    No, I analyzed the results from IT Dashboard, not the IT Dashboard itself.

    That said, “cost per form/cost per control on form” is easy to calculate (it could be calculated automatically!) and it’s not a statistic included by the dashboard. Without measuring complexity vs cost, we aren’t generating the numbers we need to generate.

  • Test Test

    Finally, the standard used should not be “is the federal government getting its money back.” The standard is “is the government paying as little as possible?” If the first standard is used, Domino’s should pay $200,000 for a car if a car delivers $200,000 in pizzas. If the second standard is used, Domino’s should only pay $15,000, which is the correct price for a car.

    The IT Dashboard itself is most likely overbudget. It’s a few data entry screens and a very fancy flash front end which can be purchased for about a thousand dollars from fusion charts. The code base for this is 176MB–and most likely–needlessly complex. People attempting to reuse the project will be confused when they read the code and could probably rewrite it themselves, cheaper.

    The goal in “open sourcing” this very complex code is to generate consulting work–to once again, charge millions for a few data entry screens and some graphs.

    The idea of auditing government spending on IT is good. However, projects should not be measured against their net value to the government–but rather against their appropriate cost. Using “what does the program deliver” as its value allows a simple accouting application to cost ten million dollars. Using “how much should each form cost” as the measurement only allows it to cost couple hundred thousand.

    If Dominos paid what the cars were worth in delivering pizzas–not what they cost–the car dealer would have all of the profit and Dominos would be out of business. If the government allows consultants to soak up the “net benefit” of their applications by charging what an application is worth–not what it costs–then the government won’t make a profit from its spending on IT.

  • George

    @ Test Test

    Your metric of “Dollars per data entry screen” is a flawed one, as the majority of these projects are not basic IT data entry. Many of them are developing custom in-house applications, Many have IT departments that support thousands of employees in the field, across hundreds of physical locations. There’s a lot more to it than what you’re assuming with your cost vs. “number of data entry screens” metric. DOJ has lots of criminal tracking and processing systems, DOD has tons of classified material handling systems, etc. Lets not forget all the network infrastructure each agency owns and operates, with nationwide WAN’s, encryption, disaster recovery, etc. Despite what you want to believe, the government is NOT overpaying for these things by orders of magnitude.

  • George

    @ Test Test

    Your argument that the 176 MB code base is “needlessly complex” and that people will be confused clearly shows you didn’t even bother to download the package and look at it. It’s a Drupal module. It takes quite literally 5 minutes to install, and its so simple to use it’s nearly self-explanatory. Sorry, but you just don’t “get it” when it comes to this IT stuff. Perhaps try a new hobby, eh?