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Last week I journeyed to Austin, Texas for the SXSW Interactive Conference, as CHIEF has for the 6th year running. We are drawn to SXSW to interact and engage with technology leaders who share the values of creativity, curiosity and bravery that we strive to meet at CHIEF everyday.

CHIEF works with federal agency clients such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the National Archives and Records Administration and the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), so I was anxious to learn about the progress of technology use in government from speakers from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the General Services Administration (GSA), representatives from Congress and from Silicon Valley.

Code.gov

To kick off the government track of sessions at SXSW, I had the opportunity to hear Alvin Salehi, from OMB talk about his work spanning two administrations in Open Sourcing Government Software.

Salehi and his team identified the obvious inefficiency of the current acquisition process in which agencies that would pay a contractor for custom software that later would be resold with minor modifications to another agency, costing taxpayers millions. To address this issue, in the last days of the Obama administration, the OMB released the first-ever Federal Source Code Policy and making it easier to share and improve government software through Code.gov.

While the expectation was that some of the more forward-leaning agencies like GSA and NASA would eagerly support this initiative, the Code.gov team was thrilled to see the participation and submissions from normally protective agencies like the NSA and the Pentagon. When it launched in November 2016, there were 45 projects on Code.gov. There are now over 3,000 projects, including the participation from nearly 90% of federal agencies.

Code.gov is bravely changing the way that federal agencies are procuring and utilizing custom technology in government.

Current Technology Issues in Government

Two stand-out sessions featured members of Congress and industry representatives discussing the connection, or lack thereof, between technology and the government.

First up was “Making Government Better with Better Technology,” which included Julie Stitzel from our friends at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, along with Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) and Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). Panelists addressed the current environment for startup businesses and ways to support new innovation, business formation and entrepreneurship in America. Here are some highlights:

  • Government has a key role supporting technology initiatives and providing opportunity to all Americans. Julie Stitzel, who heads up the Chamber Technology Engagement Center, recognized that today, technology and business are one and the same and that government has a responsibility to ensure that regulation is not stifling innovation but still respects the concerns around privacy and safety.
  • Senator Moran, author of the Startup Act, and Rep. Gomez discussed how both parties are trying to support and understand the changing technology landscape and what it means for our citizens.
  • Government should provide open access to information and implement creative solutions to modernize the federal government and support a nation of entrepreneurs.
  • In the next session, Sarah Holland, Public Policy Manager at Google, Terah Lyons from the Partnership on AI and Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.)on the “Dangerous Disconnect between DC and AI,” discussed the relationship between government and emerging technologies. Some of the key points include:
  • It was clear how much more work is needed to improve the relationship between government and emerging technologies like AI and AR. Challenges exist in how best to engage policymakers and to work with technology innovators in preparing for a more intelligent future.
  • A big step to making these connections with policymakers is to remove some of the fear around these new technologies. Terah Lyons emphasized that we all need to understand that “technology is nothing more than a series of decisions that humans make” — it is always rooted in human decision-making.
  • Sarah Holland recognized that there need to be improvements in open data and basic knowledge of new technologies across all levels of government. Improvements that will help everyone from a startup to a community to a company like Google.
  • As Rep. Sewell said, "government is best when it serves as a conduit for the change we want to see.”

Government Open Source Initiatives

My week in Austin came full circle with a final discussion about open source initiatives in government and again involved the Code.gov team. In contrast to the discussions from the previous day, this evening considered the many ways in which government is leading the charge in open source and open data initiatives.

Justin Herman from the GSA’s Emerging Citizen Technology Office shared how they are working with more than 300 federal, state, and local government partners on IT modernization initiatives. Justin is actively seeking involvement from developers and the public to help the government better understand and support emerging technologies. He argued that government is stronger and better with policies that encourage the open sharing of information, and noted that technology is changing fast and new technologies, like blockchain, are becoming available every day. With so many technology options available to the government, it’s imperative to work in the open.

My Takeaway

More of our government clients are beginning to understand the importance and benefits of open data. At CHIEF, we encourage our clients to be more transparent and involved in this discussion, and we’re currently working with the FTC, NARA, and ABMC on open data projects. We’re seeing agencies across the government recognize the need to modernize and be more transparent with their data and code.

Government open data initiatives continue to benefit citizens who have more access to data and more transparency from their government, and also the agencies themselves by increasing efficiency and innovation.

Here at CHIEF, our motto is BE BRAVE. Don’t be afraid of open data, or what’s going to happen with your data if you build these tools. We already know that people are using your data anyway if it’s publicly available. Open data initiatives will benefit both you and the public in expected and unexpected ways, sparking innovation and economic growth. And allowing citizens to have access to as much government data as possible is important for our democracy. So BE BRAVE and unleash innovative ways to use your data to make people’s lives better.

If you’re considering an open data initiative, CHIEF can help you navigate the challenges and figure out how your data can be used. Get in touch today!