GAITHERSBURG, Md.—If more of the government’s data could be made available to the public, it could spur a new wave of government efficiency and data-driven innovation. That was the message Steven L. VanRoekel, U.S. federal CIO, delivered in his keynote address Tuesday at the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Cloud Computing and Big Data Workshop here on January 15.
VanRoekel said part of his mission as federal CIO is to figure out how to use cloud computing and government data to have an impact on the lives of U.S. citizens. Saying that he sees “fascinating inflection points in computer science, government and economics,” VanRoekel noted that economically austere times like today often lead to innovation. “The majority of Fortune 500 companies founded in US history were founded in the worst economic times,” he said. Today, “government should be unlocking data to encourage innovation.”
Think of in the 1980s, he said, “when US government opened the global positioning system as a free and open data stream. Almost overnight we created $100 billion in economic value.”
VanRoekel, who was appointed CIO in August 2011, has a business background. He worked at Microsoft from 1994 to 2009, most recently as senior director of the Windows server division. In government, he has worked at a couple of agencies, including the Federal Communications Commission, where he led efforts to introduce new technology and social media.
“The government is sitting on a treasure trove of that sort of data across many, many areas” that can be used to enhance citizens’ lives, he said. As an example, VanRoekel contrasted the kind of real estate information available on the Multiple Listing Service—a home’s number of bedrooms, bathrooms, the material used for the roof—with the data that government could add, such as whether there’s an organic farm nearby, crime rates for the neighborhood, environmental quality, the proximity and quality of medical care, school ratings and the speed of broadband services.
“If you’re like me, you probably care about broadband more than you care about roof composition,” VanRoekel said. Companies like Zillow.com are already starting to incorporate some of this government data, he noted.
“We’re on the verge, at the tipping point of the data economy,” VanRoekel said. “We are just now starting to see companies founded on government data.” He’s seeing companies in the energy and health sectors starting to build businesses based on government data. For example, he recently talked with a group of “innovators” that propose to track Twitter comments about people not feeling well and combine that with data from the Center for Disease Control to track and predict where the flu is spreading.
The White House has undertaken two major cloud and data initiatives to open up its data troves, he said:
- Through its “cloud-first policy,” the Administration is encouraging agencies to move more aggressively to using the cloud. Through the Federal Risk Authorization and Management Program (Fed RAMP) the government offers guidelines on cloud providers, so agencies have a standardized approach to security assessment, authorization, and continuous monitoring for cloud products and services. One cloud vendor, Autonomic Resources, has already been approved under those guidelines.
- The Digital Government Strategy was launched in May with the goal of delivering better digital services to citizens. Under the strategy, agencies are to start to catalog and publish data, and “to think about machine readable as the new default inside government,” according to VanRoekel. Launched in May, the effort is a bit behind its schedule to publish a government-wide open data policy, but VanRoekel said last fall that the aim was to publish that in early 2013.
Concluding his comments, VanRoekel called on the government and academic researchers and experts in the audience for help. He asked them to think about the multiplier effect of the cloud in combination with big data. “Think about how to create incredible value from this inflection point.”
Tam Harbert is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. She can be contacted through her website.