Volume 28 Number 10A
First Word - Software Citizens
By Greg Bateman | Government 2013
Government is often stereotyped as plodding and stifling innovation. If you know your history, though, you know much of what we do in IT actually started as government research projects.The Internet and World Wide Web owe their existence to public-sector organizations such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the European Organization for Nuclear Research, also known as CERN.
Likewise, government-run services such as GPS and domain name registration yielded enormous economic benefit once these resources were opened up.
There’s great value still locked up in the data government agencies collect, and key folks at the federal level know it. U.S. federal government CIO Steven VanRoekel and CTO Todd Park are spearheading the effort to challenge agencies to make more of their data accessible to both the public and application developers.
At howto.gov, you can see how government is training its agencies to create APIs, use cloud computing and create mobile applications. At data.gov, established in the early days of the current administration, you can find a central repository of government data sets, APIs, and even some apps developed by agencies and citizens.
The opportunities in Washington, D.C., have never been better for small or independent developers. In my role of leading business development for Microsoft’s federal business, I work with the people and firms in the government space. I’ve gained some insight into what’s getting traction in the market.
The emphasis of the Digital Government initiative is on citizen-facing apps. Agencies have already delivered 137 mobile apps and “citizen-developers” another 349. App development is facilitated by 295 published APIs across the full spectrum of government, from the Department of Agriculture to the White House.
There’s a fair amount of variation across the APIs, so developers should understand SOAP and RESTful approaches. Ideally, there would be consistency in how agencies expose APIs, but given the vast nature of the federal government, it’s unlikely that will happen. Just having the APIs in one place is a big win.
Good work has been done in the Digital Government space and there’s more to come. One developer I spoke with hopes to create an app for “safe directions,” combining standard driving directions from mapping services such as Bing and Google with historical traffic accident data to help drivers avoid risky routes. The challenge: traffic data isn’t consistently captured by local government entities.
In fact, state and local governments likely hold a lot more useful data than the federal government. For example, a restaurant review site hoped to add health-inspection data to its reviews. The company piloted the feature in New York City, where it has good data from a single jurisdiction. In the D.C. metro area, however, multiple state and local jurisdictions handle the inspection data in different ways.
Efforts are underway to address this. The Open Government Data Initiative, found on GitHub at bit.ly/14M5tAq, is a cloud-based open data catalog for governments that want to give citizens access to data, enable developers to access the data via APIs, and streamline publishing of data directly from government systems. The goal is to lower the cost of sharing data and increase its value to society. There’s already been uptake by early adopters like the European Union and the national governments of Estonia and Colombia.
The availability of data will surely improve over time, but challenges remain in the area of identity management. For government agencies, relying on usernames and passwords for authentication is hardly sustainable. Government agencies with citizen-facing missions don’t want to manage end-user passwords any more than a small app developer does.
A solution may be in the offing. The Federal Cloud Credential Exchange (FCCX) aims to let government agencies trust ID credentials issued and authenticated by a third party. FCCX would let citizens use digital identities (including usernames/passwords) issued by their bank, for example, to log onto government Web sites. Conceptually it’s not that different than what Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Google already do, but with a much higher degree of identity verification and authentication.
Associated with FCCX, which just entered a one-year pilot phase, is the concept of Trust Framework Providers. These are certified by the federal Identity, Credential and Access Management authority via the Trust Framework Adoption Process.
The government has already assessed and approved a number of identity providers such as Citibank, Entrust, DigiCert, VeriSign and even PayPal. That list is sure to grow as more citizen to government interactions become purely digital. You can find more information on this topic at idmanagement.gov.
The future for developers working in the government market is very bright. The government is embracing new ways of doing business and is much more open to small developers than they have been in the past.
I’m lucky to have a seat with a great view of this developing market, and I hope to see you in it soon!
Greg Bateman is the senior director for Acquisition Programs, Policy and Strategy at Microsoft Federal, where his team is responsible for strategic business development in the federal market.