Calling all entrepreneurs: Your country needs you

Obama administration looks to private sector for IT aid

The Obama administration is counting on the entrepreneurial power of the private sector to develop applications, and expand access to and increase the value of government information, a panel of White House officials said Tuesday.

Despite the government having spent $500 billion on IT over the last decade, there is a widening culture gap between government and consumers who are rapidly adopting new technology, said federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra.

“We have made investments in the technology of yesterday,” Kundra said. The number of government data centers has more than doubled since 1998, from 498 to 1,100, yet government has remained largely paper-based. "When we deal with the public sector we have to wait in line, wait on the phone, or show up with the proper forms filled out,” he said.

To help close this gap, the administration wants to leverage what Kundra called the “power of the platform,” encouraging private-sector third parties to create applications that can take advantage of public information that is being made available online on government Web sites.

One such endeavor is the Health and Human Services Department’s Health 2.0 Development Challenge, announced earlier this month by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as part of the department’s community health development initiative. The goal is to make better use of extensive community health data sets that government already has gathered, said federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra.

"The information exists, but it is not accessible in a way that informs the public debate" on health care issues, Chopra said.


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HHS on June 2 demonstrated 20 applications, developed at the government's urging by companies such as Microsoft and Google, that use public health data. The development challenge is the next step in the program.

Kundra and Chopra, along with National Economic Council senior adviser Phil Weiser, spoke Tuesday at a Brookings Institution forum on improving U.S. science and technology innovation.

One direct boost to U.S. innovation would be increased federal spending on research and development, and the president has set a goal of investing 3 percent of the gross domestic product on R&D. Under the America Competes Act, which has been passed by the House but is awaiting Senate action, R&D spending by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Energy Department’s Office of Basic Science, would double in fiscal 2011. The president’s 2011 budget calls for $150 billion in R&D spending, about half of that by the Defense Department, Chopra said.

Kundra repeated the administration’s commitment to cloud computing as a way to stem the growth of data centers and improve government efficiency. “We see a world where the cloud is going to be a utility for computing power,” he said.

This, coupled with the proliferation of mobile applications for consumers, would help to energize innovation. Mobile access to data will depend on the availability of broadband connections, Weiser said. “Broadband is a transformational technology, and the cloud architecture is one exciting application are seeing,” he said.

But the goal is not necessarily to bring consumers into the .gov environment to take advantage of public information services. Government platforms such as the Federal Register do not engage the public to the extent that social networking sites and applications do, Kundra said. Requests for comment on government programs and proposals generate many times the reaction when placed on .com social networking sites as when they are published on government sites.

Kundra pointed to Data.gov as a model for this approach. The Web site has grown in its first year to contain about 270,000 government data sets. But making them available does not in itself make them valuable. Instead, “third parties are creating more value than we would ever imagine,” he said. Much like Apple’s iPhone, the site benefits from applications being developed by others that can turn data into information. These range from apps that report airport wait times to information about White House visitors.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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