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.

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 AreYouSafeDC.com.

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 data.gov.

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."

Turner said putting data in open formats and making it portable will spawn new services. Data resellers and businesses will be able to mix and correlate government data in new ways, possibly leading to new insights, such as linking changes in birth rates to environmental conditions.

"It is really embracing capitalism on the data aspect -- where the best will succeed, not just the ones that happen to have the data," Turner said.

Arlington, Va.-based FortiusOne offers something similar through its GeoCommons service, which allows users to develop visual representations of data, such as maps showing the distribution of Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme victims.

To demonstrate how the data can be used, Eric Gundersen, president of Development Seed, an online strategy company in Washington, built an application for the Apps for Democracy contest, StumbleSafely.com, that is "a guide to bars and avoiding crime" in the northwest section of Washington. It ties crime information, liquor licenses, public transit and other data, and displays it on a map. It also incorporates Twitter, and the application demonstrates how government data can be merged into one app.

Gundersen sees enormous potential in government data transparency, and said all kinds of organizations can benefit from it. "The efficiency gains in organizations will be enormous," but he also maintained that, from a philosophical perspective, it's a way for government to return something to people.

Many federal agencies have put data online, but formats can vary and searching for the data can be difficult. In a paper published last year, "Government Data and the Invisible Hand," a group of Princeton University researchers argued that the government needed to focus on exposing the underlying data to allow any citizen to work with it.

One of the authors of that paper, Edward Felten, a professor of computer science at Princeton and director of its Center for Information Technology Policy, said in an e-mail: "The idea is to make government data available so that citizens, companies and groups can use the data to build innovative Web sites, visualizations, mashups and analyses. Citizens will benefit from this innovation, as the resulting marketplace of ideas will offer better insight into government data than government alone could provide."

Sobel said "an organization can truly only do bold things if it has leadership willing to take risk," and he believes Kundra fits the bill. "His strength is his can-do willingness to foster change, try things others aren't willing or capable of attempting."

"I think Vivek has great potential to affect unique and impacting change," Sobel said. "If for some reason he doesn't return to the CIO spot, I am sure he will still make significant waves of change in government technology, just from a different seat."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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