Obama's transparent IT footprint
Efforts toward open data stores, reporting define technology’s early role in administration
- By Rutrell Yasin
- May 15, 2009
On his first day in office, President Barack Obama issued a memo that calls for agency chiefs to establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration.
The resulting effort, one grounded in information technology, has generated new demands for information, new tools for making data accessible and, in some corners of government, a surprisingly quick response.
The push for transparency and Congress’ passage of the administration’s $787 billion stimulus prompted the White House and agencies to quickly build or add new features to Web sites to make more government data available and keep the public informed about how they spend federal funds.
The administration got a quick start in February with its Recovery.gov site, which, though unfinished, offers insight into how the government is managing stimulus money as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
On the heels of the stimulus activity, new tracking tools are emerging from companies such as Acumen Solutions, IBM, Microsoft and MicroStrategy that can help federal, state and local agencies account for where and how they use stimulus dollars.
In March, the administration tapped Vivek Kundra, former chief technology officer of the District of Columbia, as the federal chief information officer. And one of Kundra's first acts as federal CIO was announcing plans to establish a governmentwide repository of data feeds, which he called Data.gov.
The idea behind Data.gov is that by opening vast stores of data, new ways of using that information could emerge to serve the public and even create new industries. For example, when the Defense Department opened Global Positioning System readings for public use in the mid-1990s, an entire new industry of geo-locational devices was born.
Data.gov is expected to be unveiled soon.
Meanwhile, the General Service Administration is working to improve the public’s experience with government, said Martha Dorris, acting associate administrator of GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Communications.
GSA has reached terms of service agreements with Facebook, a site with more than 200 million active users, and MySpace, a leading social Web portal for connecting people, content and culture.
The agency also reached agreements with Blist, which provides a consumer-focused service for publishing data on the Web; Slideshare, a site for sharing PowerPoint presentations, Word documents and PDFs; and AddThis, a bookmarking and sharing platform that has more than half a billion users worldwide.
Blist offers Web 2.0 technology that lets organizations transform raw data in large departmental databases into datasets that can be easily accessed on the Web. The company’s chief executive officer, Kevin Merritt, said the company didn’t pitch the idea to the government. “GSA called us,” he said.
Agencies also are exploring other techniques, such as social networking, said Dan Chenok, senior vice president and general manager of Pragmatics.
“I would point to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s use of Facebook for swine flu information as something significant,” said Chenok, who also served on the policy group on technology, innovation and government reform that guided Obama's transition team.
Chenok also pointed to testimony by Kundra before Congress in which he advocated for government information to live where the people live. That requires the use of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other types of social media.
“I think all of that is positive," Chenok said. "Now, it is a question of moving out. I might add it is key for the government to do so in a way that is secure. Security is something that will continue to be paramount.”
In February, Obama commissioned a 60-day comprehensive cybersecurity review headed by Melissa Hathaway, a consultant and former intelligence official who worked on computer security in the Bush administration.
The report, which has been delayed by administration efforts to deal with the H1N1 virus, should include details on how security will be incorporated with federal IT, Chenok said.
Observers in government and industry note how quickly some agencies have moved to increase transparency.
“There is this idea that the government can be slow-moving and bureaucratic, and there’s lots of red tape,” said Michael Liddell, a consultant for the Treasury Department, who worked with a team to quickly develop the agency’s FinancialStability.gov and MakingHomeAffordable.gov Web sites.
“But I think in this particular situation, because people here at Treasury knew that this was such an important task — that we’re dealing with a financial crisis and we had lots of information to put out quickly — we overcame a lot of bureaucracy and red tape that is supposed to exist,” Liddell said.
The Treasury team put up the Web sites in about two months — record-breaking time, he said. And the Web sites are dynamic, built so additional capabilities can be added as needed, he said.
The administration is saying, “Let’s not wait to have it perfect,” said Teresa Carlson, vice president of federal government at Microsoft. That attitude might go against the grain in government, Carlson said, but, “I think that is OK, because how are you going to innovate if you don’t try? You’ve got to say, 'I’m going to test this.' You have to be able to take the risk to innovate.”
Mother of innovation
Treasury turned to technology that has become fairly standard in recent years, such as Extensible Markup Language, Adobe Flash, Google Search Appliance and Google Maps to make data more visually accessible on the agency’s new Web sites, Liddell said.
“I think of it as kind of adding a layer of explanation on top of the raw material, the documents and information that we have on the Web site that makes it a little bit more user-friendly,” Liddell said about FinancialStability.gov. The site provides information on the Financial Stability Program and the government’s transactions with the auto industry and financial institutions.
For instance, the site has an interactive map of the locations of all the banks that have received money through Treasury’s Capital Purchase Program. So people in California can click on the map and see all the banks in that state that have gotten funds.
Another way to make data more accessible is through XML data feeds. Treasury puts out a weekly list of banks and automakers in the Financial Stability Program that received funds. Typically, such a list results in a 13-page PDF file. The text is small and difficult to read. Liddell’s team took the data and made an XML feed out of it so it could be better displayed and shared across the Internet, which allows people to do mashups.
“We have created a table where people can sort by the most recent transactions, the oldest transaction, or they can do it alphabetically by amount,” Liddell said. “The data was there, but now we are making it easier to find and access instead of [people] having to wade through this huge PDF and cut and paste.”
MakingHomeAffordable.gov is geared toward the general public, borrowers and homeowners looking for help. So the emphasis is on user friendliness and accessibility.
The site includes a calculator that lets people enter information about their particular situation, income and mortgage and will calculate to let them know if they are eligible for program benefits. If they are eligible, it calculates how much they might be able to save a month on their mortgage payments.
Liddell’s team had to build much of the technology from scratch because the agency’s infrastructure could not handle high-profile sites with a large demand for information, Liddell said.
“However, we wouldn’t have been able to do it without the people here in Treasury who took it on as a challenge, who said, ‘Hey, here is a great opportunity to try out some of these technologies that we wanted to do in the past,’ ” he said.
Another example is the Small Business Administration’s Business Gateway Program, a community discussion forum on SBA’s business.gov portal. The forum has a discussion board on which participants can post and answer questions about running a small business. It uses Google's Feedburner news feed service, and SBA expects to unveil additional features in the upcoming months.
Every level of government — federal, state, local and educational — is involved in implementing the stimulus law, and as a result, agencies need to track, monitor and manage stimulus package funding.
In the past few weeks, vendors have released business intelligence, data visualization and geospatial tools tailored to help manage stimulus projects.
The Federal Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board is establishing an online reporting system on Recovery.gov that must be in place by Oct. 10, when the spending data starts arriving from federal and state agencies.
To meet those requirements, the Arkansas Department of Education will use IBM’s Economic Recovery Fund Tracking technology to monitor and analyze the effectiveness of its programs.
Arkansas is scheduled to receive as much as $569.9 million in stimulus funding in the next six months. The state’s local education agencies will be given the money with the goal of improving public-school students’ academic performance.
IBM’s Web-based dashboard technology combines business intelligence and performance management capabilities. For example, if an education project has reached 56 percent completion but spent 66 percent of the recovery funds, the system will immediately alert program managers.
Acumen Solutions unveiled the Stimulus Tracking and Recipient Transparency (START) system, which is based on salesforce.com’s on-demand software platform called Force.com, and it includes training and consulting services for a 30-day rapid launch.
With Microsoft’s Stimulus360, agency project managers can track and manage projects through graphical dashboards, maps and analytics.
MicroStrategy also developed an interactive tool to make it easier for people to see how agencies are using stimulus funds. The dashboard aggregates and displays the data agencies submit in their Financial and Activity Reports on the Recovery.gov site. The company has submitted a dashboard prototype to the Obama administration for consideration as a tool for the Web site.
Engaging the public
Meanwhile, some agency officials are thinking of ways to expand the use of existing technology to more effectively engage the public.
Officials at the Bureau of Land Management are considering how to expand the use of collaboration and decision-support software from ExpertChoice to bring the public more into the agency’s decision-making process, said Ronnie Levine, BLM’s CIO and assistant director of information resource management.
Using the software, the agency has been able to prioritize IT investment and generate reports that Congress or the public might want to see about how decisions are made. The software also can be used to engage the public in some policy decisions. For example, people could weigh in on questions about the importance of oil and gas compared to solar energy or importance of wind power compared to oil and gas.
BLM could conduct forums via the Internet in an innovative way, she said.
“A lot of people perceive that transparency and open government means just putting more information on the Web,” she said. “I think it is much more than that. I think it is having more inclusiveness and greater participation from the public and helping us make those decisions on their behalf,” Levine added.
The move toward a more open government and IT’s role in that process is still in its early stages, Chenok said.
The Open Government Directive report is scheduled for mid-May, so there will be some additional activity coming out after that, he said.
“I think that the work that Vivek Kundra has led with the CIO Council on Data.gov and the cloud computing initiative are exactly in the right direction in terms of putting up information,” Chenok said. “Previously, you had to put up [data in] a lot of different places to get government information and analyze it and repackage it, and [eventually] you will be able to get it one place.”