Cloud computing: an era of open data

9 November 2012

Through an array of technological reforms with cloud computing at its heart, the US Government is making its data public. Federal chief information officer Steven VanRoekel guides CEO through this unprecedented project, which is designed to deliver internal efficiency as well as huge public and private economic opportunities.

In 2009, a memorandum from the Executive Office of the President of the United States set in motion a project that, through its many different strands, will usher in a new generation of transparency and open government. The Open Government Directive defines actions that will implement three core principles: transparency, participation and collaboration. The Directive aims to improve accountability, engage more with the public in policy-making, and improve partnerships between government and the private sector.

The latest step in this policy, which focuses on publishing government information online, improving the quality of government information and institutionalising a culture of open government, is the implementation of The Digital Government Strategy, which defines a fundamental process of IT reform.

Based on 'light technologies' such as cloud computing, shared services, modular approaches to IT development and acquisition, and improved IT programme management, this project will leverage the wealth of data created across government departments to deliver more efficient internal government processes, create solutions and services with tremendous economic value, and empower citizens to access and receive federal services and information - anytime, anywhere, on any device.

"The Open Government Directive defines actions that will implement three core principles: transparency, participation and collaboration."

"There are two main drivers", says Steven VanRoekel, chief information officer of the United States. "The first is to refine the way we do things inside government to build efficiency. My time in the private sector has shown me that it is easier to build solutions around data if it is wrapped the way we intend to do it. Secondly, there is an economic upside to releasing government data into the private sector for companies to build new solutions and new companies.

"The President reinforces the excitement about this wave of innovation and the agencies where the data is held, and which drive the programmes, see that it is useful to publish the large amount of data that is out there. There is a lot of excitement among application developers who understand the value of open data. The general public gets excited later, when the solutions come out."

Having held various roles at Microsoft, including senior director of the Windows Server division, VanRoekel became the second Federal CIO in August 2011, bringing with him not only in-depth technical understanding but also a keen eye for marketing and the use of new media. He is fully aware that the huge undertaking he now oversees is unlike anything that has gone before it.

"My office is the biggest purchaser of IT in the world, and unlocking the huge amount of government data will be revolutionary," he remarks.

Digital Strategy: a boost for the US economy

Efficiency of government processes would be enough to justify the technology revolution that is now under way, but in the current climate it is essential to maximise the economic opportunity that the Digital Strategy opens up. Looking back at previous instances when government data has been made public, VanRoekel is optimistic about the economic impact that the initiative will have.

The two best examples are the release of weather data and later the global positioning data that led to the development of the GPS systems with which we are now so familiar.

"In the 1980s, the GPS data turned into a public service, creating $100bn of services a year."

"The opening up of weather data had a profound impact on many things, from weather reports on the news to agriculture and safety. Then in the 1980s, the GPS data turned into a public service, having previously been largely a military service. That created $100bn a year in services, though people probably don't think about the government when they are using their in-car navigation systems or using a map application on their phone," he observes.

"The important thing is to find out what will create the most economic opportunity. It is hard to put a number on the potential economic benefit, but GPS created up to $100bn a year in economic opportunity and we are starting to see companies go public that are founded on government data."

One such company is Zillow, the online real estate database founded in 2005 by former Microsoft executives and Expedia founders Rich Barton and Lloyd Frink. The company has data on 100 million US homes and provides in-depth information on factors such as the changes in their value over time and comparable prices for homes in a specified area, as well as more basic data like square footage and location.

"Real estate is a good example," says VanRoekel. "A house is most people's most expensive purchase. Websites can give you data on a property - how many rooms it has, its location - and government can play a role in that. Think about the quality of local education and healthcare, safety issues such as the likelihood of flooding, environmental considerations. I'm a geek, so the quality of broadband is more important to me than those things.

"The data from government could really make a change in the quality of decision-making."

Crawl, walk, then run

The Digital Government Strategy brings together input from government agencies, the private sector and the public, and is steered by two cross-departmental working groups - the Mobility Strategy and Web Reform Task Forces - working with the White House Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration. Given the many agencies involved and the enormous scope of the project, managing complexity is a big challenge.

"The Digital Government Strategy brings together input from government agencies, the private sector and the public."

From an architecture perspective, the deliverables come in three parts. Firstly, there is the information layer containing structured data such as census results and unstructured content. Then the platform layer brings together the systems and processes used to manage the information, such as application programming interfaces (APIs) and the hardware to access the data. On top of that sits the presentation layer, which defines how the data is organised and provided to its users.

From an organisation perspective, VanRoekel understands that it is important to ease government departments into the process to help them maximise the benefit.

"We are using the principle of crawl, walk then run," explains VanRoekel. "Otherwise the complexity becomes insurmountable. We outline the deliverables for each agency and start simple. For instance, we start with a few data sets or enhancements to their website, so that we can prove the value of the project. On the technology side we help the agencies create APIs but we also help them to engage with the public to find out what it is people want."

Equally important is managing the cost of such a large undertaking.

"In implementation we see a little bit of capital investment, but we are setting a new default," says VanRoekel. "This is a new, forward-looking project. We are not scanning all of our old documents. So, things are becoming cheaper inside government as we move to a more digital environment, and we are enabling new services.

"We are getting the foundation right, which facilitates opportunities down the line for things to be better, faster and cheaper. You can take a lot of cost out of maintaining processes by doing more with less through digital means."

Looking forward in the cloud

At the same time, VanRoekel is aware that this project is just the first part of a long game, which will bring benefits years and decades later, so it is important to allow for advances in technology.

" The Digital Government Strategy is the first part of a long game, so it is important to allow for advances in technology."

"We are using proven principles that have been established over ten years in the use of open data. So we are making data machine-readable, recognising that the formats evolve over time, and we are making it so that systems can interface using APIs, which also evolve," observes VanRoekel.

"We are also designing systems to be agnostic of screen size, so whether you are viewing the data on a smartphone or a desktop computer you should experience the solution in the same way. The technology allows us to do that seamlessly. It also needs to be technology and vendor agnostic. People should be able to find the government data. It is all about finding the information and services that you need."

Cloud computing is fundamental to the delivery of the broader strategy, but the fact that it is not well understood by many people is not a major concern. The focus is fully on the deliverables - the services that result from the opening up of data.

"People don't generally understand what cloud computing means, but that doesn't matter to most of them. It is about the solution and whether it meets the needs of the people that use it, and whether it runs cost-efficiently and effectively," says VanRoekel.

The US Open Government Directive aims to improve accountability, engage more with the public in policy-making, and improve partnerships between government and the private sector.
Steven VanRoekel is federal chief information officer of the United States. Previously, he worked at the Federal Communications Commission, the United States Agency for International Development and at Microsoft in various capacities, including as speech and strategy assistant to Bill Gates.