Dash to D.C.! Tech Guru Will Head Gov’t Incubator, Digitize Democracy

anil merlin mann Dash to D.C.! Tech Guru Will Head Govt Incubator, Digitize DemocracyLast February, Anil Dash; the co-founder and “chief evangelist” for Six Apart, the company that creates the most popular blogging software in the world; was visiting his family in India for the first time in 25 years, explaining what he does for a living. Mr. Dash, 34, is an influential tech blogger and consultant who coaxed business executives and newspaper editors into embracing social media long before every site from The New York Times to Kodak had a blog.

Before he left New York to visit the small western Orissa village, the Obama administration had launched a redesign of WhiteHouse.gov with—of course—a blog.

“It was one of the few things in my career where my family understood what I did,” Mr. Dash told The Observer. “‘Oh, you helped make software that ran Barack Obama’s blog and that’s what you do.’ Between that and Britney Spears, they had the examples they needed.” (My.BarackObama.com and BritneySpears.com use software by Six Apart called Moveable Type.)

“That felt like a validation of all this work,” Mr. Dash continued. He was sitting at the 71 Irving Place coffee shop, just a few blocks from his home, his eyes bleary from overdosing on computer screen time.  “From then on out, I had this feeling that was going to be the trend.”

During the summer, Mr. Dash’s personal blog had its 10th anniversary. In August, he wrote a post titled “The Most Interesting New Tech Startup of 2009.” According to Mr. Dash, it was the executive branch of the federal government of the United States.

“[T]he current administration is comprised in great part of digital natives,” he wrote, “and it’s remarkable how quickly they’ve remade the .gov world into not just a number of compelling websites, but into a broad set of platforms that are going to inspire as much technological innovation as Twitter, Facebook or the iPhone did when they unveiled their technology platforms.”

Mr. Dash wondered: Could WhiteHouse.gov be the next iPhone? Could developers get just as giddy over coding software to serve their country as they are over creating an app for the Apple store?

He’s about to find out.

Soon after he wrote his post, Mr. Dash received emails and calls from those “digital natives” in the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, asking him if he’d like to help. They eventually approached him with an opportunity to lead a new Washington, D.C., incubator called Expert Labs. He got the job in early October.

With support from a $500,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and their Policy Innovation Network has launched Expert Labs as a nonpartisan, independent project that aims to improve the policy-making process by engaging experts and technologists.

“The government is already using technology to talk to citizens,” Mr. Dash told The Observer. “But we’re going to make technology that helps government listen to them.”

Expert Labs will borrow developers from the hallways of Google in Silicon Valley or start-ups like Foursquare and Kickstarter in New York to build government applications and social media tools in exchange for grants—and the chance to connect with some of the most powerful people in the country.

Mr. Dash plans to lure participants with a periodic, competitive model, similar to the Knight Foundation’s Knight News Challenge. He’ll ask government agencies about their policy initiatives (say, fighting childhood obesity) as well as operating issues (like expensive, licensed billing software) and then host competitions, asking developers to code social media platforms so specialists can provide innovative solutions. 

As director of Expert Labs, Mr. Dash, with his buddy list of powerful geeks, will serve as a government 2.0 switchboard—connecting the policy makers with technology innovators and experts to reinvent the way government works.

“Candidly, the name scared the hell out of me,” Mr. Dash said about the Policy Innovation Network. “This sounds like some scary think tank where you know a bunch of old dudes in suits are choosing how the world happens. I was like, this doesn’t sound like me.

“But, actually, this was really interesting; it’s just being marketed like it’s medicine, not candy. It needs more cherry flavor. I know how to present this as compelling as it is.”

Instead of the government dictating what kind of technology they need, Mr. Dash was providing the general public the opportunity to help them invent it.

Other good-for-government coding programs, like Code for America or N.Y.C.’s Big Apps competition, have similar models. But Mr. Dash said this is the first time there has been neutral ground for private developers to connect with their government in a big way.

“If people are skeptical about the ability of government to execute, then by all means, support our little entrepreneurial effort to do so,” Mr. Dash said.

Vivek Kundra, the administration’s chief information officer, and Katie Stanton, the director of citizen organization, wrote in a post on the White House’s Open Government blog that they are open to the public’s ideas on improving Web 2.0 technologies. “The National Weather Service does a great job of taking complex satellite data and making it widely accessible to people via new and traditional channels,” they wrote. “When you wake up, you can reach for your i-Phone, radio or newspaper and know whether it’s going to rain. How can we do this with other important government information, such as Medicaid and Medicare benefits, the state of the power grid or the Federal budget?”

Mr. Dash hopes to get answers for these types of questions—ready for review by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy—by spring 2010.

“To know that the White House read what I said, and was actually listening, that in itself is much more motivating than a million other things—like money or building something really cool,” Mr. Dash said. He hopes that developers and experts will feel the same way.

“This is the promise they all made in November,” to contribute to change by getting more involved in the political process, he said. “I can’t wait to pull that trigger on them.”

 

greagan@observer.com