Is The Federal Government The Most Interesting Tech Startup For 2009?

from the perhaps... dept

A few weeks back I got to see the federal government's CTO, Aneesh Chopra, speak twice during his first trip to Silicon Valley. I've seen him speak before (before he was appointed, when he was CTO for Virginia), but I have to admit I was pretty skeptical going in. For plenty of reasons that you can guess, I'm pretty jaded by people in government, and it's rare to come across people who seem to be doing things for anything other than "political" purposes. But I have to admit that the amazing thing that came through in both Chopra's talks was that they were both entirely about actually getting stuff done, with a focus on openness and data sharing. Chopra talked, repeatedly, about figuring out what could be done both short- and long-term, and never once struck me as someone looking to hoard power or focus on a partisan or political reason for doing things. It was never about positioning things to figure out how to increase his budget. In fact, many of the ideas he was discussing was looking at ways to just get stuff done now without any need for extra budget. Needless to say, this is not the sort of thing you hear regularly from folks involved in the government.

But, of course, talk is cheap (especially in politics). And, while Chopra (and Vivek Kundra, the government's CIO) both actually have a nice track record of accomplishing these sorts of goals in their past jobs, the proof is in what's actually getting done. We'd already mentioned at least one success story with the IT dashboard at USASpending.gov, but can it continue? I have to admit, a second thing that impressed me about Chopra was that, even with such a success, he didn't focus on it. The fact that he got together such a site in such a short period of time is impressive enough, and while he mentioned it in his talks, most of them were much more focused not on what he'd already done, but on what he was going to do -- and the plans all seemed quite achievable.

So I have to agree with Anil Dash, that one of the most interesting tech "startups" to watch this year is the federal government of the US. The tech projects that they're already coming out with are compelling and well done. As Anil notes:
What's remarkable about these sites is not merely that they exist; There had been some efforts to provide this kind of information in the past. Rather, what stands out is that they exhibit a lot of the traits of some of the best tech startups in Silicon Valley or New York City. Each site has remarkably consistent branding elements, leading to a predictable and trustworthy sense of place when you visit the sites. There is clear attention to design, both from the cosmetic elements of these pages, and from the thoughtfulness of the information architecture on each site. (The clear, focused promotional areas on each homepage feel just like the "Sign up now!" links on the site of most Web 2.0 companies.) And increasingly, these services are being accompanied by new APIs and data sources that can be used by others to build interesting applications.

That last point is perhaps most significant. We've seen the remarkable innovation that sprung up years ago around the API for services like Flickr, and that continues full-force today around apps like Twitter. But who could have predicted just a year or two ago that we might have something like Apps for America, the effort being led by the Sunlight Foundation, Google, O'Reilly Media and TechWeb to reward applications built around datasets provided by Data.gov. The tools that have already been built are fascinating. And, frankly, they're a lot more compelling than most of the sample apps that a typical startup can wring out of its community with a developer contest.
There's plenty going on in the administration that I disagree with and am troubled by -- but efforts on the tech side are something worth applauding, while also watching to see what the folks there can do in the next few years.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    yozoo, Aug 17th, 2009 @ 5:52am

    no

    its the most interesting startup in the last 5 years - maybe more

     

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  2.  
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    NullOp, Aug 17th, 2009 @ 6:55am

    Feds 'R' Us

    The Federal government is DEFINITELY not the most interesting startup. It is possibly the most questionable startup, however. The Fed CTO may have been a wonderful speaker but, as always, I would watch to see what they actually do. Even in small corporations projects tend to go astray. If the Fed, where 'turf' is king, look for a lot going astray!

     

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  3.  
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    Paul (profile), Aug 17th, 2009 @ 9:19am

    But is Aneesh Chopra a phony?

    I only bring this up because I ran across Dvorak's Article:

    http://www.dvorak.org/blog/2009/08/12/special-report-is-us-chief-information-officer-cio -vivek-kundra-a-phony/

    Has anyone else dug into this?

     

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  4.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Aug 17th, 2009 @ 9:29am

    Re: But is Aneesh Chopra a phony?

    Yeah that story has been debunked left and right. Not sure what got into Dvorak, but nearly every "scoop" in that post was wrong. So bad that it wasn't even worth referring to.

    http://gigaom.com/2009/08/12/dvorak-raises-doubts-about-us-cio-vivek-kundra/

    The only thing that's left from Dvorak's post is some weasily "I heard him speak and I don't trust the guy." Fine, don't trust him, but look at what he did in his previous job and what he's been doing already. If he's such a fraud, he's the most effective fraud in history.

     

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  5.  
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    Tom, Aug 17th, 2009 @ 3:37pm

    Dvorak

    Dvorak has always been an Indian hater. I've seen articles from the past where he says Indian outsourcing will go nowhere and that the Russians are the only ones good at anything.

     

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  6.  
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    Paul (profile), Aug 17th, 2009 @ 4:30pm

    Dvorak

    I have done a bit of surfing on this issue, and it seems that everyone is boiling down Dvorak's issues raised in his blog to questions about Chopra's Masters Degree. I really don't understand why, given that this plays such a minor role in Dvorak's criticism of Chopra. Dvorak has updated his blog entry with that information about the MS degree, without any loss in the sting against Chopra, best I can tell.

    Seriously, the bigger picture here shouldn't be lost. Washington has a habit of putting absolute dolts in charge of setting up policy. I don't know what the answer really is, since I would be just as disturbed if Obama had put Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs, or Larry Ellison, or Sergey Brin, or Larry Pageany, or any number of other recognizable tech names in the same position.

    The real question is exactly where is this guy coming from, what are his goals, and why do we believe he has the right plan for Information Technology?

    And why isn't anyone seriously digging into these questions? I mean, do your own searches. Where are the answers to these broader questions about Chopra, rather than just this hyper focus on this one single question Dvorak clearly got wrong, out of all the questions Dvorak raised?

     

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    Mike Masnick (profile), Aug 17th, 2009 @ 6:44pm

    Re: Dvorak

    Washington has a habit of putting absolute dolts in charge of setting up policy. I don't know what the answer really is, since I would be just as disturbed if Obama had put Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs, or Larry Ellison, or Sergey Brin, or Larry Pageany, or any number of other recognizable tech names in the same position.

    The real question is exactly where is this guy coming from, what are his goals, and why do we believe he has the right plan for Information Technology?


    Why not look at what these two guys have done in their previous work, and what they've already done in their roles so far as CIO and CTO? That's what I did, and I've come away impressed -- and I'm the type of person who is crazy skeptical of anyone in gov't.

    These two guys have shown a track record. If they stop, then I'll be at the head of the line complaining about it. Dvorak's criticisms were way off base. The meat of his accusation was about Kundra's background, and every single point he raised on that issue (his degree, his background, his experience, his teaching) were proven false.

    And why isn't anyone seriously digging into these questions? I mean, do your own searches. Where are the answers to these broader questions about Chopra, rather than just this hyper focus on this one single question Dvorak clearly got wrong, out of all the questions Dvorak raised?

    You seem to be confusing Chopra and Kundra. But you should look at what each of them has done in the past, and what they're doing now. Lots of people HAVE dug into them (what do you think this post was about?!?) and have been quite impressed.

     

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  8.  
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    yozoo, Aug 18th, 2009 @ 8:09am

    Re: Dvorak

    I dont hink hes an indian hater, I think hes a guy who makes a living by being relevant. Saying outrageous things that generate lots of "web chatter", keeps him relevant . . .its always been his MO.

     

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  9.  
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    TSO, Aug 19th, 2009 @ 6:10am

    Re: Dvorak

    > Indian outsourcing will go nowhere and that the Russians are the only ones good at anything.

    Trust me on that. I worked with Indians... their code is... ummm.... horrific.

     

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    Cody Jackson (profile), Aug 20th, 2009 @ 3:35am

    If only the military would follow

    I won't deny that the government has the potential to come up with good IT ideas. However, one needs to remember that this is the same government that wasted millions of dollars on the new FBI computer system then scrapped it because it didn't work.

    Additionally, the military is in dire need of someone with new ideas regarding better use of IT resources. It seems to me that a large source of IT problems develop from the ol' boy network. Someone retires from the military, gets a job at a gov. contractor, then proceeds to use his contacts in the military to swing the good deals. These deals don't help the military, considering how many piss-poor projects I've seen and worked with, but I'm sure they are helping the bottom line of someone.

    There are many stories on the net about computer systems crashing and effectively taking down Navy vessels or the abomination that is the Navy/Marine Corps Intranet. IMO, the people making the decisions aren't the ones who have to use the technology. And if they are, they are of a sufficient level that they simply bypass the rules they created; the rules are good enough for the "little people" but not the higher mucky-mucks.

    So, I don't see how a new federal CIO will be able to accomplish very much, simply because maintaining the status quo means big money for lots of people. Unless a juicy new contract can be created for a new project.

     

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