White House, FCC Unveil New Web Platforms

WASHINGTON — Tuesday was a big day for advocates of open government.

Administration officials here at the Gov 2.0 Summit, unveiled a pair of technology-based initiatives designed to improve and broaden access to government services.

The White House technology team took the wraps off of Challenge.gov today, a new website that asks the public for innovative solutions to a host of problems posted on the website by the various agencies.

The Department of Health and Human Services, for instance, is asking developers to submit apps that will make use of publicly available data on health providers to provide visualizations of health-care quality. Similarly, NASA is hosting a “green flight challenge,” calling for design and engineering teams to develop a full-sized aircraft that can fly 200 miles in less than two hours, using less than one gallon of gas per person. The agency is planning to hold a competition next July in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Sixteen departments have submitted 36 challenges to launch the initiative, with many offering cash prizes for the winner, though not all are technology-oriented design contests. The Department of the Interior, for instance, is holding a contest calling for photos of national landmarks.

But in broad strokes, the initiative continues earlier efforts of the administration to connect with the public through the Web, such as the open data repository Data.gov which aims to marshal the so-called wisdom of crowds to address policy challenges.

“This is a fundamental shift in power,” Federal CIO Vivek Kundra said at the conference Tuesday. “In the same way that open data is moving ownership of information to the American people, what Challenge.gov does is engages the American people … in creating solutions to some of the toughest problems this country faces.”

Officials at the Federal Communications Commission also showcased their latest online efforts at the Gov 2.0 Summit, including a new site for developers with a host of APIs inviting the public to create applications drawing on the commission’s data. One API invites developers to create applications drawing on the data the FCC has collected about Internet service through its broadband speed tests.

The developer community that went live today comes as a down payment on a broader effort underway to overhaul the agency’s website, which FCC Managing Director Steven VanRoekel admits is a relic of an earlier age of static, “Web 1.0” design.

The site was last redesigned a decade ago, and the current home page contains more than 250 links, with more than 40,000 links two clicks away. The new site aims for a more streamlined, user-friendly design that would end an era that has seen FCC.gov occasionally land at the top of lists ranking the worst federal websites.

“We’re working very diligently on the new website,” VanRoekel said. “Before the end of the year, you will see a new a new FCC.gov that greatly changes from the ground up how we approach the Web platform.”

Initiatives such as Challenge.gov and the FCC developer community embrace the spirit of O’Reilly Media founder and CEO Tim O’Reilly, whose company is hosting the Gov 2.0 Summit as a forum on the idea of “government as a platform.”

The iPhone as role model?

In introductory remarks on Tuesday, O’Reilly suggested the government look to Apple’s iPhone as a model for a successful platform. When the device first launched in 2007, it came equipped with a handful of applications preloaded by Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL). Today, just over two years after Apple opened its App Store, there are more than 250,000 applications available for purchase and download.

But for some transparency advocates, the high hopes that greeted early Obama administration moves, dating back to a far-ranging open-government directive issued on the president’s first full day in office, have given way to disappointment. Critics point to the slowness and half-heartedness of some agencies’ efforts to publish data and engage with the public.

The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for the use of technology to drive government transparency and accountability, today released the results of a study that found $1.36 trillion in discrepancies between actual government spending and the figures reported on USAspending.gov, a website that tracks federal spending born from a legislative effort led in part by then-Sen. Obama.

Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, pointed to other signs of sluggishness on the part of agencies and administration officials as a worrisome indication that the open data directive is getting off track. For instance, the preliminary plans for bringing more data online in a format accessible to the public that the agencies drafted in response to the directive “were little more than aspirational,” Miller said.

“In many respects this administration has gone further and faster than any administration before it, but now, 20 months later, it appears the drive for data transparency has stalled,” she said.

Revolutions take time

O’Reilly acknowledged that the momentum seems to have waned as open-government advocates have encountered an array of obstacles, including labyrinthine rules concerning federal records and cultural intransigence among agency IT managers. But, he told his audience, “revolutions take time.”

“We started this event last year with a wave of optimism. We saw the potential of the way technology can transform government,” O’Reilly said. “But it’s harder than it appears, and this year the mood is more subdued, because we know it’s hard work.”

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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