President Obama is still looking for a national chief technology officer to help forge U.S. technology policy, but today he did something that could have even more impact, at least in the short run. He announced the appointment of a chief information officer to help drag the federal government’s vast and ossified computer infrastructure into the Facebook age.
Obama’s pick is Vivek Kundra, 34, who is currently chief technology officer for the District of Columbia. He will be expected to expand uses of cutting-edge technology, but also to make sane investments. Judging by his track record, citizens might soon see some concrete changes: new ways to access public information, new online tools for communicating with federal agencies, and access to new databases. One way to reform federal IT would be more effective information sharing between agencies (did anyone say CIA and FBI?). The federal government certainly has a sorry history of white-elephant IT upgrades, including a bungled FBI computer overhaul well described in this Washington Post story of a couple of years ago.
Kundra’s plans already include a data.gov website to provide the public with vast amounts of searchable government information. All this will be a vast leap in scale from the current offerings of his DC website, which has been an interesting test bed for making local government more responsive and transparent. There, you can do things like download maps of Wi-Fi access spots and view city contracts. He also launched an apps for democracy contest that resulted in residents suggesting Web and phone applications that would do things like provide better access to crime reports. He’s even been pushing to allow people to pay their parking tickets via Facebook. In a statement, Obama said, “I have directed him to work to ensure that we are using the spirit of American innovation and the power of technology to improve performance and lower the cost of government operations.”