Paul McCloskey

COMMENTARY

Government joins the ingenuity party

New ideas for harnessing technology aren't limited to developers

This is a time of jaw-dropping inventiveness in the technology community and government’s uses of technology.

The evidence is everywhere. I can now use my cell phone to give me, in seconds, the English translation of a French menu from a photo taken with the phone. I just used another app to identify a song on the radio  — “Groundhog Blues” by Lightnin’ Hopkins — an operation that took all of 15 seconds. No wonder it’s called Shazam. It seems like a magic trick.

In the government arena, city dwellers are using a camera phone app (SeeClickFix) to alert local public works agencies to the location of dangerous potholes, a piece of civic engagement that is building and getting noticed in city halls across the country.

This ingenuity boom does not seem to be led exclusively by technology developers. The government management ranks are brimming with new ideas for harnessing technology.

So the Obama administration is pushing as much taxpayer-funded source data, from geodata to health care treatment outcomes, back to the technology community in raw, machine-readable formats so developers can design applications for slicing and dicing the data.

Meanwhile, the Health and Human Services Department is mounting a sophisticated set of incentives to induce doctors to try out electronic health records. The terms are designed so that compliance by individual doctors will connect them with others and produce — link-by-link and hub-to-hub — a nationwide system of e-health sharing.

And we have midwestern state IT leaders looking to form a consortium of states to share reusable code for administering unemployment insurance eligibility, an idea that bucks established rules for securing funding but would save the expense of reinventing a common system 50 times.

It’s as if — witnessing the parade of astounding advances in technology in recent years — government technology leaders are asking themselves, “Why are we doing this the way it’s always been done?”

Instead, they are looking for technologies that are agile, open and reusable across the civic stack, where a system or service used successfully in one agency can be provided via a cloud, infrastructure or shared software service to another.

Of course, brilliance doesn’t guarantee progress. As former Minnesota CIO Gopal Khanna says in this issue of Government Computer News, it’s not enough that ideas are simply ingenious or even make common sense. “You have to push for it,” he says. “You have to ask for it. If you don’t make it part of a new conversation, it’s not going to happen.”

In government, ingenuity plus pressure wins out.

About the Author

Paul McCloskey is editor-in-chief of GCN. Follow him on Twitter: @Paul_GCN.

Reader Comments

Sat, Jan 15, 2011 Jeremy Engdahl-Johnson New Yokr

Federal funding may be encouraging a move toward EHR, but there's more to it than just installing systems. How can healthcare data pooling lead to a better system? More at http://www.healthcaretownhall.com/?p=2193

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