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How federal CIO Vivek Kundra helped to build an iPhone app

He plans to enable developers to build more applications using publicly available data -- provided he survives D.C.'s bribery scandal.

March 17, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - WASHINGTON -- To get an idea of the type of changes that federal CIO Vivek Kundra wants to bring to the U.S. government, take a look at the iPhone application at

The application uses 34,000 crime incidents generated in 2008 by the District of Columbia's police department. Homicide, assault, robbery and car theft data are geocoded and mapped on the location-aware iPhone, which triangulates cell tower information. That enables users to discover the threat level, represented on a meter that ranges from low to high, within two blocks of their location.

It's a "Geiger counter for crime," said Brian Sobel, a D.C. resident, developer and part of the team that built the application. As CIO of the District of Columbia, Kundra reached out to developers and encouraged them to use government data to build applications. Kundra was "rallying the D.C. tech community to be part of things," Sobel said.

Kundra even held a contest last fall, "Apps for Democracy," to find new uses for the district's data, which he was making accessible to the public. That support for open and accessible government data was probably one of the reasons why President Obama appointed Kundra two weeks ago as the nation's first federal CIO.

Kundra help create a "Data Catalog" for the District of Columbia with more than 200 data sources, and as federal CIO, he promised to create a vastly larger catalog at a site to be called

But Kundra's role in the Obama administration is in question after the arrest on Thursday of one of his D.C. subordinates on bribery charges. An IT contractor was also arrested on similar charges. Although Kundra has not been connected to these activities, the White House said that on the same day of the arrests, Kundra had taken a leave of absence. No explanation was offered by government officials.

In his short time before taking the leave, Kundra articulated his vision of data openness for the U.S. in a speech he gave Thursday morning, the same day police were searching his former offices. To a standing-room-only crowd at FOSE, a government trade show, Kundra called for "radical transparency" and said he would publish government data in usable formats with the "default assumption" that it should be made available.

Government data is nectar to people like Andrew Turner, the chief technology officer at FortiusOne, a mapping intelligence company partially funded by the CIA's venture capital arm In-Q-Tel. If the federal data is made accessible, Turner said he can only guess at how the data will be used, but he said "amazing things will happen."

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