US CTO seeks to scale agile thinking and open data across federal government

Todd Park is looking for Presidential Innovation Fellows to help government work better.

In the 21st century, federal government must go mobile, putting government services and information at the fingertips of citizens, said United States Chief Technology Officer Todd Park in a recent wide-ranging interview. “That’s the first digital government result, outcome, and objective that’s desired.”

To achieve that vision, Park and U.S. chief information officer Steven VanRoekel are working together to improve how the federal government shares data, architects new digital services and collaborates across agencies to reduce costs and increase productivity through smarter use of information technology.

Park, who was chosen by President Obama to be the second CTO of the United States in March, has been (relatively) quiet over the course of his first two months on the job.

Last Wednesday, that changed. Park launched a new Presidential innovation Fellows program, in concert with VanRoekel’s new digital government strategy, at TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference in New York City. This was followed by another event for a government audience at the Interior Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. Last Friday, he presented his team’s agenda to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

“The way I think about the strategy is that you’re really talking about three elements,” said Park, in our interview. “First, it’s going mobile, putting government services at the literal fingertips of the people in the same way that basically every other industry and sector has done. Second, it’s being smarter about how we procure technology as we move government in this direction. Finally, it’s liberating data. In the end, it’s the idea of ‘government as a platform.’”

“We’re looking for a few good men and women”

In the context of the nation’s new digital government strategy, Park announced the launch of five projects that this new class of Innovation Fellows will be entrusted with implementing: a broad Open Data Initiative, Blue Button for America, RFP-EZ, The 20% Campaign, and MyGov.

The idea of the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program, said Park, is to bring in people from outside government to work with innovators inside the government. These agile teams will work together within a six-month time frame to deliver results.

The fellowships are basically scaling up the idea of “entrepreneurs in residence,” said Park. “It’s a portfolio of five projects that, on top of the digital government strategy, will advance the implementation of it in a variety of ways.”

The biggest challenge to bringing the five programs that the US CTO has proposed to successful completion is getting 15 talented men and women to join his team and implement them. There’s reason for optimism. Park shared vie email that:

“… within 24 hours of TechCrunch Disrupt, 600 people had already registered via Whitehouse.gov to apply to be a Presidential Innovation Fellow, and another several hundred people had expressed interest in following and engaging in the five projects in some other capacity.”

To put that in context, Code for America received 550 applications for 24 fellowships last year. That makes both of these fellowships more competitive than getting in to Harvard in 2012, which received 34,285 applications for its next freshman class. There appears to be considerable appetite for a different kind of public service that applies technology and data for the public good.

Park is enthusiastic about putting open government data to work on behalf of the American people, amplifying the vision that his predecessor, Aneesh Chopra, championed around the country for the past three years.

“The fellows are going to have an extraordinary opportunity to make government work better for their fellow citizens,” said Park in our interview. “These projects leverage, substantiate and push forward the whole principle of liberating data. Liberate data.”

“To me, one of the aspects of the strategy about which I am most excited, that sends my heart into overdrive, is the idea that going forward, the default state of government data shall be open and machine-readable,” said Park. “I think that’s just fantastic. You’ll want to, of course, evolve the legacy data as fast as you can in that same direction. Setting that as ‘this is how we are rolling going forward’ — and this is where we expect data to ultimately go — is just terrific.”

In the videos and interview that follow, Park talks more about his vision for each of the programs.

A federal government-wide Open Data Initiative

In the video below, Park discusses the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and introduces the first program, which focuses on open data:

Park: The Open Data Initiative is a program to seed and expand the work that we’re doing to liberate government data as a platform. Encourage, on a voluntary basis, the liberation of data by corporations, as part of the national data platform, and to actively stimulate the development of new tools and services, and enhance existing tools and services, leveraging the data to help improve Americans’ lives in very tangible ways, and create jobs for the future.

This leverages the Open Government Directive to say “look, the default going forward is open data.” Also the directive to “API-ize” two high priority datasets and also, in targeted ways, go beyond that, and really push to get more data out there in, critically, machine-readable form, in APIs, and to educate the entrepreneur and innovators of the world that it’s there through meetups, and hackathons, and challenges, and “Datapaloozas.”

We’re doubling down on the Health Data Initiative, we are also launching a much more high-profile Safety Data Initiative, which we kicked off last week. An Energy Data Initiative, which kicked off this week. An education data initiative, which we’re kicking off soon, and an Impact Data Initiative, which is about liberating data with respect to inputs and outputs in the non-profit space.

We’re also going to be exploring an initiative in the realm of personal finance, enabling Americans to access copies of their financial data from public sector agencies and private sector institutions. So, the format that we’re going to be leveraging to execute these initiatives is cloned from the Health Data Initiative.

This will make new data available. It will also take the existing public data that is unusable to developers, i.e. in the form of PDFs, books or static websites, and turn it into liquid machine-readable, downloadable, accessible data via API. Then — because we’re consistently hearing that 95% of the innovators and entrepreneurs who could turn our data into magic don’t even know the data exists, let alone that it’s available to them — engage the developer community and the entrepreneurial community with the data from the beginning. Let them know it’s there, get their feedback, make it better.

Blue Button for America

Park: The idea is to develop an open source patient portal capability that will replace MyHealthyVet, which is the Veterans Administration’s current patient portal. This will actually allow the Blue Button itself to iterate and evolve more rapidly, so that every time you add more data to it, it won’t require heart surgery. It will be a lot easier, and of course will be open source, so that anyone else who wants to use it can use it as well. On top of that, we’re going to do a lot of “biz dev” in America to get the word out about Blue Button and encourage more and more holders of data in the private sector to adopt Blue Button. We’re also going to work to help stimulate more tool development by entrepreneurs that can upload Blue Button data and make it useful in all kinds of ways for patients. That’s Blue Button for America.

What is RFP-EZ?

Park: The objective is “buying smarter.” The project that we’re working on with the Small Business Administration on is called “RFP-EZ.”

Basically, it’s the idea of setting up a streamlined process for the government to procure solutions from innovative, high-growth tech companies. As you know, most high-growth companies regard the government as way too difficult to sell to.

That A) deprives startups and high-growth companies from the government as a marketplace and, B) perhaps even more problematically, actually deprives the government of their solutions.

The hope here is, through the actions of the RFP-EZ team, to create a process and a prototype that the government can much more easily procure solutions from innovative private firms.

It A) opens up this emerging market called “the government” to high-tech startups and B) infects the government with more of their solutions, which are radically more, pound for pound, effective and cost efficient than a lot of the stuff that the government is currently procuring through conventional channels. That’s RFP-EZ.

The 20% Campaign

Park: The 20% Campaign is a project that’s being championed by USAID. It’s an effort at USAID to, working with other government agencies, NGOs and companies, to catalog the movement of foreign assistance payments from cash to electronics. So, just for example, USAID pays its contractors electronically, obviously, but the contractor who, say, pays highway workers in Afghanistan or the way that police officers get paid in Afghanistan is actually principally via cash. Or has been. And that creates all kinds of waste issues, fraud, and abuse.

The idea is actually to move to electronic payment, including mobile payment — and this has the potential to significantly cut waste, fraud and abuse, to improve financial inclusion, to actually let people on phones, to enable them to access bank accounts set up for them. That leads to all kinds of good things, including safety: it’s not ideal to be carrying around large amounts of cash in highly kinetic environments.

The Afghan National Police started paying certain contingents of police officers via mobile phones and mobile payments, as opposed to cash, and what happened is that the police officers started reporting an up to a 30% raise. Of course, their pay hadn’t changed, but basically, when it was in cash, a bunch of it got lost. This is obviously a good thing, but it’s even more important if you realize that when they were paid what they were paid in cash that they ultimately physically received, that was less than the Taliban in this province was actually paying people to join the Taliban — but the mobile payment, and that level of salary, was greater than the Taliban was paying. That’s a critical difference.

It’s basically taking foreign assistance payments through the last mile to mobile.

MyGov is the U.S. version of Gov.uk

Park: MyGov is an effort to rapidly prototype a citizen-centric system that allows Americans the information and resources of government that are right for them. Think of it as a personalized channel for Americans to be able to access information resources across government and get feedback from citizens about those information and resources.

How do you plan to scale what you learned while you were HHS CTO to the all of the federal government?

Park: Specifically, we’re doing exactly the same thing we did with the Health Data Initiative, kicking off the initiatives with a “data jam” — an ideation workshop where we invite, just like with health data, 40 amazing tech and energy minds, tech and safety innovators, to a room — at the White House, in the case of the Safety Data Initiative, or at Stanford University, in the case of the Energy Initiative.

We walk into the room for several hours and say, “Here’s a big pile of data. What would you do with this data?” And they invent 15 or 20 news classes of products or services of the future that we could build with the data. And then we challenge them to, at the end of the session, build prototypes or actual working products, that instantiates their ideas in 90 days, to be highlighted at a White House — hosted Safety Datapalooza, Energy Datapalooza, Education Datapalooza, Impact Datapalooza, etc.

We also take the intellectual capital from the workshops, publish it on the White House website, and publicize the opportunity around the country: Discover the data, come up with your own ideas, build prototypes, and throw your hat in the ring to showcase at a Datapalooza.

What happens at the Datapaloozas — our experience in health guides us — is that, first of all, the prototypes and working products inspire many more innovators to actually build new services, products and features, because the data suddenly becomes really concrete to them, in terms of how it could be used.

Secondly, it helps persuade additional folks in the government to liberate more data, making it available, making it machine-readable, as opposed to saying, “Look, I don’t know what the upside is. I can only imagine downsides.” What happened in health is, when they went to a Datapalooza, they actually saw that, if data is made available, then at no cost to you and no cost to taxpayers, other people who are very smart will build incredible things that actually enhance your mission. And so you should do the same.

As more data gets liberated, that then leads to more products and services getting built, which then inspires more data liberation, which then leads to more products and services getting built — so you have a virtual spiral, like what’s happened in health.

The objective of each of these initiatives is not just to liberate data. Data by itself isn’t helpful. You can’t eat data. You can’t pour data on a wound and heal it. You can’t pour data on your house and make it more energy efficient. Data is only useful if it’s applied to deliver benefit. The whole point of this exercise, the whole point of these kickoff efforts, is to catalyze the development of an ecosystem of data supply and data use to improve the lives of Americans in very tangible ways — and create jobs.

We have the developers and the suppliers of data actually talk to each other, create value for the American people, and then rinse, wash, repeat.

We’re recruiting, to join the team of Presidential Innovation Fellows, entrepreneurs and developers from the outside to come in and help with this effort to liberate data, make it machine-readable, and get it out there to entrepreneurs and help catalyze development of this ecosystem.

We went to TechCrunch Disrupt for a reason: it’s right smack dab center in the middle of people we want to recruit. We invite people to check out the projects on WhiteHouse.gov and, if you’re interested in applying to be a fellow, indicate their interest. Even if they can’t come to DC for 6-plus months to be a fellow, but they want to follow one of the projects or contribute or help in some way, we are inviting them express interest in that as well. For example, if you’re an entrepreneur, and you’re really interested in the education space, and learning about what data is available in education, you can check out the project, look at the data, and perhaps you can build something really good to show at the Education Datapalooza.

Is open data just about government data? What about smart disclosure?

Park: In the context of the Open Data Initiatives projects, it’s not just about liberation of government health data: it’s also about government catalyzing the release, on a voluntary basis, of private sector data.

Obviously, scaling Blue Button will extend the open data ecosystem. We’re also doubling down on Green Button. I was just in California to host discussions around Green Button. Utilities representing 31 million households and businesses have now committed to make Green Button happen. Close to 10 million households and businesses already have access to Green Button data.

There’s also a whole bunch of conversation happening about, at some point later this year, having the first utilities add the option of what we’re calling “Green Button Connect.” Right now, the Green Button is a download, where you go to a website, hit a green button and bam, you download your data. Green Button Connect is the ability for you to say as a consumer, “I authorize this third party to receive a continuous feed of my electricity usage data.”

That creates massive additional opportunity for new products and services. That could go live later this year.

As part of the education data initiative, we are pursuing the launch and scale up of something called “My Data,” which will have a red color button. (It will probably, ultimately, be called “Red Button.”) This is the ability for students and their families to download an electronic copy of their student loan data, of their transcript data, of their academic assessment data.

That notion of people getting their own data, whether it’s your health data, your education data, your finance data, your energy use data, that’s an important part of these open data initiatives as well, with government helping to catalyze the release of that data to then feed the ecosystem.

How does open data specifically relate to the things that Americans care about, access to healthcare, reducing energy bills, giving their kids more educational opportunities, and job creation? Is this just about apps?

Park: In healthcare, for example, you’ll see a growing array of examples that leverage data to create tangible benefit in many, many ways for Americans. Everything from helping me find the right doctor or hospital for my family to being notified of a clinical trial that could assist my profile and save my life, and the ability to get the latest and greatest information about how to manage my asthma and diabetes via government knowledge in the National Library of Medicine.

There is a whole shift in healthcare systems away from pay-for-volume of services to basically paying to get people healthy. It goes by lots of different names — accountable care organizations or episodic payment — but the fundamental common theme is that the doctors and hospitals increasingly will be paid to keep people healthy and to co-ordinate their care, and keep them out of the hospital, and out of the ER.

There’s a whole fleet of companies and services that utilize data to help doctors and hospitals do that work, like utilize Medicare claims data to help identity segments of a patient population that are at real risk, and need to get to the ER or hospital soon. There are tools that help journalists identify easily public health issues, like healthcare outcomes disparities by race, gender and ethnicity. There are tools that help country commissioners and mayors understand what’s going on in a community, from a health standpoint, and make better policy decisions, like showing them food desserts. There’s just a whole fleet of rapidly growing services for consumers, for doctors, nurses, journalists, employers, public policy makers, that help them make decisions, help them deliver improved health and healthcare, and create jobs, all at the same time.

That’s very exciting. If you look at all of those products and services — and a subset of them are the ones that self-identify to us, to actually be exhibited at the Health Datapaloozas. Look at the 20 healthcare apps that were at the first Datapalooza or the 50 that were at the second. This year, there are 230 companies that are being narrowed down to about a total of 100 that will be at the Datapalooza. They collectively serve millions of people today, either through brand new products and services or through new features on existing platforms. They help people in ways that we would never have thought of, let alone build.

The taxpayer dollars expended here were zero. We basically just took our data, made it available in machine-readable format, educated entrepreneurs that it was there, and they did the rest. Think about these other sectors, and think about what’s possible in those sectors.

In education, through making the data that we’ve made available, you can imagine much better tools to help you shop for the college that will deliver the biggest bang for your buck and is the best fit for your situation.

We’ve actually made available a bunch of data about college outcomes and are making more data available in machine-readable form so it can feed college search tools much better. We are going to be enabling students to download machine-readable copies of their own financial aid application, student loan data and school records. That will really turbo charge “smart scholarship” and school search capabilities for those students. You can actually mash that up with college outcomes in a really powerful, personalized college and scholarship search engine that is enabled by your personal data plus machine-readable data. Tools that help kids and their parents pick the right college for their education and get the right financial aid, that’s something government is going to facilitate.

In the energy space, there are apps and services that help you leverage your Green Button data and other data to really assess your electricity usage compared to that of others and get concrete tips on how you can actually save yourself money. We’re already seeing very clever, very cool efforts to integrate gamification and social networking into that kind of app, to make it a lot more fun and engaging — and make yourself money.

One dataset that’s particularly spectacular that we’re making a lot more usable is the EnergyStar database. It’s got 40,000 different appliances, everything from washing machines to servers that consumers and businesses use. We are creating a much, much easier to use public, downloadable NSTAR database. It’s got really detailed information on the energy use profiles and performance of each of these 40,000 appliances and devices. Imagine that actually integrated into much smarter services.

On safety, the kinds of ideas that people are bringing together are awesome. They’re everything from using publicly available safety data to plot the optimal route for your kid to walk home or for a first responder to travel through a city and get to a place most expeditiously.

There’s this super awesome resource on Data.gov called the “Safer Products API,” which is published by the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC). Consumers send in safety reports to CPSC, but until March of last year, you had to FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] CPSC to get these. So what they’ve now done is actually publish an API which not only makes the entire database of these reports public, without you having to FOIA them, but also makes it available through an API.

One of the ideas that came up is that, when people buy products on eBay, Craiglist, etc, all the time, some huge percentage of Americans never get to know about a recall — a recall of a crib, a recall of a toy. And even when a company recalls new products, old products are in circulation. What if someone built the ability to integrate the recall data and attach it to all the stuff in the eBays and Craigslists of the world?

Former CIO Vivek Kundra often touted government recall apps based upon government data during his tenure. Is this API the same thing, shared again, or something new?

Park: I think the smartest thing the government can do with data like product recalls data is not build our own shopping sites, or our own product information sites: it’s to get the information out there in machine-readable form, so that lots and lots of other platforms that have audiences with millions of people already, and who are really good at creating shopping experiences or product comparison experiences, get the data into their hands, so that they can integrate it seamlessly into what they do. I feel that that’s really the core play that the government should be engaged in.

I don’t know if the Safer Products API was included in the recall app. What I do know is that before 2011, you had to FOIA to get the data. I think that even if the government included it in some app the government built, that it’s important for it to get used by lots and lots of other apps that have a collective audience that’s massively greater than any app the government could itself build.

Another example of this is the Hospital Compare website. The Hospital Compare website has been around for a long time. Nobody knows about it. There was a survey done that found 94% of Americans didn’t know that there was hospital quality data that was available, let alone that there was a hospital compare website. So, the notion of A) making the hospital care data downloadable and B), we actually deployed it a year and a half ago in API form at Medicare.gov.

That then makes the data much easier for lots of other platforms to incorporate it, that are far more likely than HospitalCompare.gov to be able to present the information in actionable forms for citizens. Even if we build our own apps, we have to get this data out to lots of other people that can help people with it. To do that, we have to make it machine-readable, we have to put it into RESTFUL APIs — or at least make it downloadable — and get the word out to entrepreneurs that it’s something they can use.

This is a stunning arbitrage opportunity. Even if you take all this data and you “API-ize” it, it’s not automatic that entrepreneurs are going to know it’s there.

Let’s assume that the hospital quality data is good — which it is — and that you build it, and put it into an API. If nobody knows about it, you’ve delivered no value to the American people. People don’t care whether you API a bunch of data. What they care about is that when they need to find a hospital, like I did, for my baby, I can get that information.

The private sector, in the places where we have pushed the pedal to the metal on this, has just demonstrated the incredible ability to make this data a lot more relevant and help a lot more people with it than we could have by ourselves.

White House photo used on associated home and category pages: white house by dcJohn, on Flickr

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