Gov Geeks a Hit in New York
By Jose Antonio Vargas
NEW YORK -- At the largest annual gathering of political technology geeks (and we mean that in the nicest possible way) the country's first chief
technology information officer is treated a bit like USB co-inventor Ajay Bhatt in the new Intel ad series: a different kind of rock star.
Vivek Kundra, King of Geek, got a thunderous and standing ovation after unveiling the most ambitious and pioneering effort yet to come out of his young federal office: an "IT dashboard" where you, the tax-paying citizen, can easily track how some 28 federal agencies are spending nearly $40 billion on federal technology projects, complete with descriptions, evaluation reports and contact information for managers in charge. The dashboard lives on USASpending.gov, a federal budget database.
As it happens, the federal government is the largest single buyer of technology in the world, Kundra said, and the goal of the dashboard is to give iPhone-carrying, Web-oriented Americans a way to keep Uncle Sam in check -- in their own communities, on their own time. For example, if Citizen X in San Francisco sees a way for Project 3 in California to save more money on Item 3, there's a way for Citizen X to communicate with the government. In Kundra's view, this kind of data transparency holds agencies accountable.
"Now, for the first time, the entire country can look at how we're spending money and give us feedback," Kundra told the attendees of the Personal Democracy Forum (PdF) early this morning. "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."
The aim is for the federal government to "tap into the ingenuity of the American people to show us a better way, to show us an innovative path," he added.
The project underscores two realities. First, the open-source, here-comes-everybody ethos of the social Web has arrived in the White House, big time. If Kundra's team can launch a Web 2.0 dashboard for federal IT spending, what's next -- a dashboard for federal education and military spending? Second, the fact that the announcement was made here at PdF -- the brainchild of Andrew Rasiej, a New York entrepreneur-turned-tech-political-evangelist -- has firmly cemented the confab and online think-tank at the center of the intersection of politics and technology. Together with Micah Sifry, a former journalist for The Nation and also a tech political evangelist, Rasiej has created the bipartisan TechPresident.com, which aggregates and analyzes how politicians use technology.
Six years ago, when PdF held its first conference, the focus was convincing politicos that the Internet, as Sifry said in an interview, "was not a fad." This was in 2004, when inside-the-Beltway political operatives were quick to point to Howard Dean as a sign that the Internet can only take a campaign so far. In the past two years, and especially this year, the focus has been less on campaigning and more in governing. The title of this year's confab, in fact, is We.gov.
"We still don't know exactly how We.gov works," Rasiej said in an interview, "but we know something is happening, something new is being born, and this is the place to figure it out."
The two-day conference attracted some 1,000 attendees, which included many of the bold-faced names in the tech political circle. Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, sits on the board of the D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation, the non-partisan group that fights for more government transparency. Newmark introduced Kundra. Joe Rospars, who headed Barack Obama's Internet team, headlined the confab's first session, along with Mark McKinnon, the long-time Republican consultant. Panels have titles such as "Reinventing Government: What Would Google Do?," which featured the author and new media guru Jeff Jarvis, and "From Participatory Politics to Participatory Medicine: The Coming Revolution in Health Care," moderated by the Esther Dyson, the author and veteran tech maven whom the magazine Fast Company included on its list of the Most Influential Women in Technology.
Fittingly, the event is being held at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Jazz is all about experimentation, going with the beat, feeling your way through the music. The same goes with this emerging tech political sphere.
This is one in a series of online columns on our growing "clickocracy," in which we are one nation under Google, with e-mail and video for all. Please send suggestions, comments and tips to email@example.com.
Posted at 5:23 PM ET on Jun 30, 2009
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