Federal CTO calls on agencies to innovate

Agencies have moved forward, often without outside urging, Chopra says

Agencies are vigorously engaged in developing ideas and plans that will lay the groundwork for innovation to help government better engage with citizens, employees and business partners, Aneesh Chopra, federal chief technology officer, told attendees at a conference in Washington, D.C. today.

Many agency officials are enthusiastic about coming up with plans to ingrain more innovation, openness and transparency in their organizations, Chopra said. He praised a dozen agencies for addressing innovation without any urging from federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra or himself.  


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Chopra spoke at a conference called “Beyond SOA and Cloud: Next Generation Information Exchange in High Consequence Environments,” sponsored by the Washington, D.C. Chapter of the Armed Forces Communications & Electronics Association, AFCEA.

Chopra said agencies are coming up with plans that focus on innovative platforms, new methods of engaging employees and the private sector, devising new web services for more data sharing and releasing more information to the public.

“I can’t wait until April 7 when you all will comb through what the agencies are doing,” and see a whole range of ideas, he said. 

On April 7, agencies are required by the Obama Administration’s Open Government Directive to develop and publish plans on their Open Government Web pages that will describe how they will improve transparency and integrate public participation and collaboration into their activities.

As a case study, Chopra pointed to the National Health Information Network Direct and NHIN.org. NHIN Direct is a public-private partnership to develop a set of policies, standards and services that enable the Internet to be used for the secure and meaningful exchange of health information to improve health and health care. 

NHIN Direct includes an open, transparent, collaborative process that includes the use of wikis, blogs, open source and open content. The first phase is grounded in real-world implementations due this year, he said.

In the area of cloud computing, a major administration initiative, much emphasis has been placed on improving the procurement of applications through Apps.gov, Chopra noted. But work is going on beyond procurement.

“I am focusing like a hawk on how we can deliver game-changing improvements in the technology and use [of cloud computing] through our research and development enterprise,” he said.

For example, the National Science Foundation has signed research collaborations with Google, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Yahoo around cloud computing. NSF has $15 million in research awards to give to academics to address issues such as security and data portability.

Other noteworthy efforts include the Defense Advance Research Program Agency’s Transformative Apps, a $50 million program to develop applications to support the warfighter, he said.  For example, if a soldier wanted to download a real-time Afghan to English translator, there should be an ecosystem of such translators. Soldiers could then decide which would be of best value, without the complexities of a request for proposal.

The framework that DARPA is proposing is a whole new ecosystem of application development that will enable warfighters to have more choice and control over the resources they need to be productive, Chopra said.

“We’re also focusing on advanced IT ecosystems that can make a difference not just in the long-term but in the short term,” he said. 

An example of this is the Text4Baby program, a free mobile health education service to promote maternal and child health. Through a public-private partnership, 15 wireless carriers have agreed to deliver Text4Baby messages to subscribers at no charge for two years. Women who sign up will receive three free SMS text messages each week, timed to their due date or the baby’s date of birth.

The aim is to cut the infant mortality rate by making sure women get proper pre-natal care.  The government is working with about 150 organizations that have grassroots networks focused on educating women about pre-natal concerns.  A small business in Washington, D.C., acts as a broker bringing together all the parts.  The service is provided at zero cost to the taxpayer, he said.  About 20,000 women signed up in a month.

This is an example of an innovative platform that was set up rapidly, he said.

The administration continues to look for innovation that will have an impact on the entire American economy, Chopra said.

For instance, the administration is seeking public input on Grand Challenges for the 21st Century for Engineering by April 15.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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