Vivek Kundra at PDF: Help Us Build the Future of Federal Technology

kundra Vivek Kundra at PDF: Help Us Build the Future of Federal TechnologyEarlier today, Vivek Kundra, the country’s first federal chief information officer, debuted a federal “IT dashboard” on USAspending.gov that gives citizens and officials easy access to the government’s technology spending, with project descriptions, status updates, evaluation reports and contact information for managers. Mr. Kundra, displaying the new site at Personal Democracy Forum at Jazz at Lincoln Center, called it the “golden source” of IT spending information.

“Now, for the first time, the entire country can look at how we’re spending money and give us feedback,” Mr. Kundra said. “What this dashboard is going to allow us to do, for the first time, as we democratize data, as we make information available, we go to the golden source of that information. … We’re going to tap into some of the best ideas and the best thinking.”

Mr. Kundra’s IT dashboard, which he first announced on May 27, is a follow-up to Obama administration transparency initiatives like Data.gov, which makes more than 100,000 government data feeds and statistics—from census data to toxic waste release information to health studies and testing scores—available online in one place.

The IT dashboard displays data received from about 28 agencies (from the Department of Labor to the Department of Transportation), information on more than 7,000 federal IT investments and detailed numbers on more than 780 “major” projects (worth $38.6 billion total). The dashboard allows users to examine projects by line item and look at project spending and progress in different charts and graphs in green, yellow and red color codes to indicate whether or not those resources are spent effectively. There are also pictures and contact information for agency CIOs, and social media tools for sharing information.

“What the Obama administration is committed to is laying a new foundation for transparency, accountability and responsibility, especially in how we manage IT investments.”

Mr. Kundra said the federal government is the largest single buyer of technology in the world at more than $70 billions dollars annually, and he wants citizens to use this new dashboard to keep tabs on how agency leaders and CIOs are progressing on these projects.

He mentioned a project to build handheld computers for 2010 census workers. Last year, the initiative was nixed and $600 million was lost. If the project was initiated while the dashboard was online, users could examine the 400 “change order” modifications sent to the government contractor. “By change order No. 10, you could tell there was something wrong,” Mr. Kundra told the New York Times‘ Bits blog in June. “It is a leading indicator that they didn’t have their requirements figured out very well upfront. Therefore, the statistical likelihood of a failure is very high.”

With the new Web site, the problems would’ve been obvious. And users could’ve also sent the project managers a memo that there are things like iPhone already out there, and some cheap census software could be coded to help.

Mr. Kundra hopes to “tap into the ingenuity of the American people to show us a better way, to show us an innovative path,” he said.

“I nearly fell out of my chair watching that,” said Micah Sifry, co-founder of Personal Democracy Forum, who introduced Mr. Kundra and led a standing ovation for the presentation.

Mr. Kundra said he plans on launching a blog on the site to retrieve feedback and he hopes to build more dashboards with other government data. “We’re exploring beyond where we are right now,” he said. 

“Is the data perfect? No.” Mr. Kundra said. When Andrew Raseij, Personal Democracy Forum co-founder, asked if “public documents” should be redefined as “searchable, accessible and readable online,” Mr. Kundra said “yes.” But he gave a reality check about access. The federal government is made up of over four million people with 10,000 different systems, he said, and data still exists in paper form, and in computer systems that the government has had to “bring people out of retirement” to extract.

“This is a beta,” warned Macon Phillips, new media director of the White House, who was onstage with Mr. Kundra. “This hasn’t been done before; I think we’ll find some flaws in it,” he said, referring to the IT dashboard.

But Obama’s team is hoping Personal Democracy Forum members will help them improve these projects. “We are looking to this community, and one of the reasons we launched it here is that you are the important early adopters of this to really push us [and] develop this platform,” Mr. Phillips said. “This community is a critical connector between our work—making government more of a platform and more accessible—and the public because you understand both sides. … If we build these things and nobody uses them, it doesn’t matter.”