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Interview: Vivek Kundra, Fed CIO on the commerialization of government data and the use of social networks to spur innovation

Editors Note: The government is committing to the power of cloud computing and collecting and sharing information from social networks and government databases to spark domestic and global innovation as well commercial opportunities to mine and offer new applications from this data, such as GPS. I recently attended the Gartner Symposium IT/xpo 2009 at which the Federal CIO, Vikek Kunda addressed the needs of all CIOs in the public and private sectors to get more support and engagement from their bosses and stakeholders. He discussed how public sector CIOs need to shift the focus away purely from data centers and networks to focusing on solving problems that the American people care about. Kundra said "It's a 10-year journey as we look at moving towards this direction, because there are number of barriers that need to be addressed, number one being security." He also discussed as more business processes move to the digital world, there is going to be greater IT investments. He is concerned about is not necessarily the investments we are making, but where we are making them. This is the final part of of a multi-part interview, that is edited, in which Gartner analysts, Tina Nunno and Andrea Di Maio interviewed CIO, Kundra on a wide scope of government IT projects to reduce costs, time of deployment, reduce IT failures and provide more transparency for their IT projects. Thanks for listening! Mike Klein, Editorial Director, WTN News.

Andrea Di Maio: Government is not just a producer of information, it's going to be a user, and consumer of information produced by somebody else and this leads to issues such as how can government employees from agencies step into knowledge that is in Facebook and Twitter. In a recent survey over 54% of US CIOs banned access to social networks from the workplace. What are your thoughts on the government and social networking and how the government might use that information and knowledge?

Vivek Kundra interviewed by Gartner Analysts
Vivek Kundra: Look at what the President has done. He is leading the way in this space. If you look at the first digital town hall meeting he hosted, he engaged the American people and there were over 100,000 people, and four million plus comments posted online.

If you look at the online discussion that we have on public policy that are within Facebook, study the feedback loop from the community in terms of what's working, what isn't working, and if you look at what's happening within a number of agencies like the EPA, part of we're trying to do with Apps.gov is provide those platforms to engage the American people.

We want to make sure that it's a two-way dialogue and not a one-way conversation. It is not just about t putting up platforms. It is about a feedback loop that allows you to see what people care about and what they are interested in.
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The American people interact directly at the local level. And now scaling and then applying this at the federal level and making sure that you're providing a context driven government. This provides a feedback from the people in terms of services we're providing. We're seeing that across the board and at the public policy level, whether its healthcare or how we're engaging online, or whether it's around education.

At the agency level on the cultural side, I think this is going to take time and that's part of what we're doing. That's one of the reasons GSA, has been negotiating these terms of service agreements with the Web 2.0 providers. So we can deploy these platforms rapidly. But we want to make sure that we're doing that in a way that protects the privacy of the American people and also security, because there are obviously concerns about making sure that we are not violating privacy or security.

Tina Nunno: You've talked about that sharing of information from government collected data may create commercial opportunities and actually it has had some great results in terms of for example, the sharing of GIS information has created some interesting commercial opportunities. What are some of the commercial opportunities you see next on the horizon and also how will make that information available? What are you considering the impact will be for these be US commercial opportunities or will they be global commercial opportunities?

Vivek Kundra: If we release data and you do it in a way that's platform based, you enable the ability to have massive innovation. If we think about two examples that I talk about, one is the National Institutes of Health, when the NIH made the decision with other world bodies to release data around the Human Genome Project, there is massive innovation around personalized medicine and now you have drugs waiting to go through the approval chain of the FDA. The Department of Defense has been releasing data on satellite information. What it allowed to happen was massive innovation and the birth of GPS industry.

The federal government is releasing data and in the same way what we're hoping to accomplish with the marketiing data through Data.gov is an explosion in innovation as a result. Whether that's FAA whether that's CMS, and the healthcare industry and being able to move towards information driven markets, you can compare one provider against the other based on evidence based data.

We are moving towards evidence - based decisions, in a global age where information can move in milliseconds anywhere in the world. You don't necessarily limit innovation across national boundaries. You have the ability to tap into innovation all over the world and what we're seeing right now is markets and within the United States we are starved for innovation.

Perhaps you will find out online through an iPhone app, what your options are, as far as telecommunication services, or by providing real-time datasets, so you can look on your iPhone and find on a real time basis, the closest train station, when the next train is coming in both directions or specific restaurants. So we see huge potential for innovation of the marketing of data across the world.

Tina Nunno: Are you seeing other governments reciprocating, in terms of opening up data to share it?

Vivek Kundra: I have been having a lot of interesting conversations with CIOs all over the world from Australia to Canada to the UK. I had recent conversation with the CIO of New Zealand, and they are very interested in this. And as we think about it, imagine a world where we have created these platforms that allow you to move from one part of the world to another, or even in the United States.

One of the things we've noticed is when we launched Data.gov, that New York City launched its version and so did San Francisco. And imagine nationally the ability to be able to leverage information, and make more intelligent decisions based on data that the government is providing.

Tina Nunno: CIOs do not really dispute that transparency and accountability for their actions like the IT dashboard is a good idea. However, a number of them do express concern that not enough is being done yet to actually empower CIOs to do their jobs better. Many CIOs think that whether or not you are watching them, that they are going to try to do a good job. The question is that they don't feel like they are getting quite the authority they need, or the tools that are needed to be as successful as they would like to be, so what would you like to do going forward, did you have any plans going forward to really strengthen that role and its authority?

Vivek Kundra: I have been setting it down with the chief performance officer within the United States government, and we've been meeting with cabinet secretaries and deputy secretaries and CIOs are talking about how important it is to the President, to make sure that we are leveraging technology across thier agencies. One of the interesting things that happened when we launched the IT dashboard, is the President went on it and he spent time looking at some of these investments. We took a picture of him doing that and we put it on the IT dashboard, and a number of CIOs came to me and they said for the first time after we put that picture out there, they were actually called and had a meeting with their cabinet secretary who said, so tell me about all these investments and what's going on and why? I think what you're seeing is the President's commitment to technology, translating into change and this is not going to happen overnight.

This is a difficult problem and we have been working at it for a while, but what has happened culturally, is in this administration, its central to the success and as we move towards the 21st century, that technology plays a huge role in delivering the performance agenda of the federal government, and so, the way we are going to be able to do this is, one, by making sure that we have a robust and active federal CIO council that actually delivers on some of the challenges that we face as a government, and focuses on thinking about how do these investments actually affect the American people. Two, making sure that through the IT dashboard we review all those investments with the cabinet secretaries and the CIOs in the room, as they talk about some of the challenges we faced. Three, I think it's the leadership that the President is providing as he talks about the importance of technology, and as he holds cabinet secretaries accountable for the performance within their agencies.

Andrea Di Maio: It's quite clear what you have accomplished over this past year in the major areas like Data.gov, Apps.gov, the IT dashboard, so what are your main challenges and accomplishment that you plan for 201o?

Vivek Kundra: One of the biggest challenges we face is as we think about lifting up the role of the CIOs, shifting the focus away purely from data centers and networks to focusing on solving problems that the American people care about, is this movement towards cloud computing and the reason that's really important and it's going to be a huge challenge as we move forward in the next year is because it's a 10-year journey in our view as we look at moving towards this direction, because there are number of barriers that need to be addressed, number one being security.

How do we make sure that as we move towards cloud computing, security is addressed?

Number two, being data portability, how do we make sure that as federal agencies move in this direction, they are not locked into a single vendor and given the liquidity of the market, and given the health of companies, making sure that federal business processes, the continuity of government can have that, how do we move data around.

Third, is how do we make sure that we are not essentially trading one set of data centers and infrastructure for another set of data centers and infrastructure and spending billions of dollars on interoperability. So how do we make sure that as we move in this direction that we engineer through architecture, the underpinnings of interoperability and standards? So there is a lot of work in the coming months and years as we address some of these problems and how do we make sure that we create the appropriate Darwinian pressures, so we can drive innovation across this new model for the federal government.

Tina Nunno: Do you see your $76 billion IT budget going up or down?

Vivek Kundra: As more and more business processes move to the digital world, what we are going to see is greater investments and we're committed to making investments in technology. What I am concerned about, is not necessarily the investments we are making, but it's where we are making them. What we want to do is we want to make sure that the investments we're making lead to an outcome where a student who is applying for student aid to go to college, is able to do it in minutes rather than hours.

We want to make sure that the investments we're making, leave results for the American people and the challenge is going to be how do we make more capital investments in information technology that produce better dividends. So we don't end up in an era where we continue to invest in IT, yet we have worse results when it comes to the performance of the federal government and how do we make sure that we're bridging the gap where the federal government lags behind the investments and the innovations that have happened in the private sector.

Please see related stories

  • Technology leadership and increased IT project transparency, procurement and cloud computing, Interview with Fed CIO, Vivek Kundra: Part two

  • Can public sector CIOs be innovative and leaders? Interview with Vivek Kundra, Fed CIO

  • Mike Klein: The “New Normal” CIOs and IT execs converge at Gartner Confab

  • Google plans private government cloud

  • The Fed CIO Agenda: Should every mortgage have a data tag?

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