Month: July 2015

5 a16z podcast episodes for government

I recently discovered Silicon Valley venture capital firm a16z’s podcast series, and it’s a sign of the times that a VC is leveraging media in a way that not just promotes their portfolio companies, but also addresses the government and regulatory affairs issues Silicon Valley, startups and technology companies increasingly face.

The podcast is a must-follow for anyone in technology, and here are five episodes to get everyone in government IT started.

Feds publish guide to setting up an open source project


18F has published a guide that helps federal government workers standardize GitHub use and better leverage the social coding platform when setting up open source projects.

Tips include how to best name and describe projects, create readable READMEs , write user story focused issues, wiki best practices and a GitHub repo checklist.

Additional thoughts that would make the guide more helpful:

  • Add a section on collaborators and permissions.
  • Encourage including a link for the ‘Website for this repository’ next to the description whenever possible.
  • Next to the ‘Edit this page’ link, add a ‘Submit feedback’ link to the issues section for the guide so it’s easier to giv feedback. In general, if you’re going to have either option, it’s best to have both, especially the latter.
  • One bug: The images on aren’t responsive.


USPTO’s tech strategy is a blueprint for all government IT

U.S. Patent and Trademark OfficeI just discovered the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s strategic IT plan, which should serve as a blueprint for all government agency technology efforts.

The plan emphasizes an iterative (agile, DevOps), modular, reusable, service-oriented approach to IT strategy and, of particular note and general relevance, are the vision and governance sections.

USPTO technology vision:

  • Choose to reuse services and build services to be shared to refocus resources on mission needs and quickly provide better capabilities that can themselves be reused and take full advantage technology industry developments.
  • Build services that are always available to support geographic expansion of customers worldwide and examination nationwide with 24x7x365 operations and zero customer impact to downtime.
  • Make everything like a website to improve the accessibility and management of all information on all devices and in all locations.
  • Provide searchable information to improve IP research by accepting and converting all information into searchable technology formats for USPTO and other systems to be built upon.
  • Write code once and deploy wherever to improve portability, stability, and cost effectiveness of solutions by increasing the technology choices available with vendor neutrality.
  • Take an Agile approach to everything to improve the customer value delivered by incorporating continual customer and industry feedback into solutions iteratively before it is too late.
  • Provide Mobility and Collaboration to improve the individual user experience and leverage collaborative technology to better share knowledge and work together towards business results.

From USPTO Chief Information Officer John B. Owens II:

Customers expect to interact with the USPTO through digital channels such as websites, email, and mobile applications. By building better digital services that meet the needs of the customers that use our services, we can make the delivery of our products and services more effective. The USPTO follows an incremental, fast-paced style of software development to reduce the risk of failure by getting working software into users’ hands quickly, and by providing frequent opportunities for the delivery team members to adjust requirements and development plans based on watching people use prototypes and real software. A critical capability is being able to automatically test and deploy the software so that new features can be added often and easily put into production.

Full report

GovDelivery expands government communications offering with Textizen acquisition

Textizen co-founder and then Code for America Fellow Michelle Lee post Textizen signs around Philadelphia. (Photo: Code for America

Textizen co-founder and then Code for America Fellow Michelle Lee posts Textizen signs around Philadelphia. (Photo: Code for America

(See disclosures related to this post)

Government communications platform GovDelivery announced today it has acquired the civic engagement text messaging service Textizen to “promote citizen action, engagement, and behavior change.”

Textizen enables governments to launch mobile campaigns soliciting input via text messages with administration, dashboard and visualization tools that allow for monitoring and subsequent engagement.

Textizen started as a 2012 Code for America project in Philadelphia and subsequently participated in the Code for America incubator program. It was also a Knight Foundation as a Knight News Challenge winner.

“The Textizen team has demonstrated that it can use interactive text messaging technology and creative problem solving to help improve government and engage citizens,” said GovDelivery CEO Scott Burns in a prepared statement. “Textizen’s capabilities allow us to help government succeed in the critical area of driving individuals to take action.”

GovDelivery has produced a government-focused text messaging guide and will host a webinar on August 19.

GovDelivery recently acquired open source software-as-a-service provider NuCivic in December to expand its government open data offerings.

12 books for better government

12 books for better government

I’m doing some spring cleaning and parting ways with a number of my beloved government-focused books. Before I do, I wanted to share the ones I’m letting go of that I highly recommend to those involved in re-thinking the way government works, and its changing role given the way the world is evolving.

Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Question for a New Utopia, Anthony Townsend. Thorough overview of how cities are balancing the big vendor approach to government technology and the role citizen technologists will play in co-creating communities.

Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government, Gavin Newsom, Lisa Dickey. Accessible, big picture take of what’s being done through open data and collaboration and other new technologies that are powering a new wave of government IT.

The Solution Revolution: How Business, Government, and Social Enterprises Are Teaming Up to Solve Society’s Toughest Problems, William D. Eggers, Paul Macmillan. Provides insight into the impact of the sharing economy, especially as governments navigate and address the role it plays on policy and local constituent services.

The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance, Stephen Goldsmith, Susan Crawford. Discusses the influence and importance of data in managing more effectives cities.

Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government, Aneesh Chopra. Highlights how the federal government is baking in technology innovation in the context of his time as U.S. chief technology officer.

Open Data Now: The Secret to Hot Startups, Smart Investing, Savvy Marketing, and Fast Innovation, Joel Gurin. Deep-dive into open data’s role in empowering the big data-driven economy and the entrepreneurs and ventures behind it, and why governments should increase resources and energy towards it.

A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit, Tim Ryan. Technology isn’t going to save us on its own, and a mindfulness approach to people in the broad context of society will help those hesitant to change feel more comfortable and ground those who think they know it all.

Open Government, Daniel Lathrop, Laurel Ruma. One of the original books that ushered in the Gov 2.0 wave that’s still worthwhile as a foundation for why transparency and open data are fundamental and important.

The foundation for an open source city, Jason Hibbets. A practical guide for city leaders engaging with local civic technologists, as well as a blueprint for the latter in creating an organic culture of collaboration.

Beyond Transparency: Open Data and the Future of Civic Innovation, Brett Goldstein, Lauren Dyson. Holistic take on open data from multiple leaders in the open government movement,  published by Code for America.

Social Media in the Public Sector: A Guide to Participation, Collaboration and Transparency in The Networked World, Ines Mergel. An academic but important understanding of how government is leveraging social media, and why it should embrace it as a crucial means of communicating and engaging residents and citizens.

Civic Apps Competition Handbook, Kate Eyler-Werve, Virginia Carlson. Much of the tactical elements of civic apps competitions have evolved since this was published but, nonetheless, a helpful understanding of the importance and role of this type of program and how governments can encourage and lead on this front.

Cities and startups

Fred Wilson’s talk with The New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin during the recent Cities for Tomorrow 2015 conference about how cities can create startup hubs is a must-watch for mayors.

The overarching point is that the objective isn’t to build the next Silicon Valley, but rather to create an environment that serves as the foundation for entrepreneurship, technology and innovation.

According to Wilson, in order to cultivate a startup ecosystem, cities need to focus on four objectives:

  • Talent: “Talent exists everywhere, but there is more talent some places than elsewhere. You need technical talent in many cases if you want to create tech companies.” I’ll add that this is becoming increasingly easier as a distributed work environment is becoming easier and easier to manage.
  • Capital: “More than anything you need angel money. When I go to places like Buffalo or Cleveland or St. Louis or Des Moines or Detroit, what I say is ‘get the rich people in your city to take their money out of bonds and put them into startups.’ You’re not going to create the next generation of companies with all of your wealth people having their money in bonds, clipping coupons. … The most critical thing is angel capital.”
  • Cheerleading: “I do it. You know, a lot of people credit me for what happened here in New York, and I don’t think that I deserve a ton of credit, but one thing I’ve been from day one is I’ve been tooting our horn and cheerleading and talking and promoting and hyping what’s been going on here in New York. And, I’ve got to tell you, I think Mayor Bloomberg did a lot of that in the last six years. He, all of a sudden, started realizing there was a tech sector here, and he started cheerleading it. They created some policies that were favorable, but I don’t think that the policies had anything to do with, were anywhere near as powerful as the cheerleading.”
  • Experience: Ross Sorkin interrupted Wilson with a question related to cheerleading, and the questioning turned to other topics, so he didn’t have a chance to expound on this point.

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently discussed this same issue on the a16z Podcast.

Related to cultivating technology hubs, Brad Feld has an excellent book on building startup communities that is a must-read for every mayor and city chief technology/information/innovation officer.

5 principles of government software development

Photo: White House

Photo: White House

Technology has always been a prime concern of government. The U.S. Constitution created the power to confer patents and copyrights. The Manhattan project, Apollo program, eradication of smallpox, and the Internet were all government projects.

The inexorable march of technology and the rise of computers, software, and free and open source software in particular, requires that we articulate principles by which a government of the people, by the people, and for the people develops software.

Here are five principles of government software development:

  1. Action Transparency: In order to be fully transparent and accountable in its services to the public, the government at all levels shall use only free and open source software.
  2. Procurement Transparency: In order to be fully transparent and accountable to the taxpayer in its procurement of software the government shall develop in an iterative way, inviting the public to view, use, comment on and contribute to its process, progress and code contemporaneously with its development.
  3. Execution Security: Because closed-source code is inherently insecure, the government shall use only free and open source software.
  4. Democratization of potential contribution: In order to foster civic involvement and to save money and foster competition, the government shall facilitate the contribution of source code from the public.
  5. Contribution Security: In order to be secure, the government shall retain absolute control over what code is deployed and accepted as official code, without restricting the development of potential contributions in any way, and pay whatever it has to in order to obtain the technical capability of this review.

Principle 1 — Action Transparency

In order to be fully transparent and accountable in its services to the public, the government at all levels shall use only free and open source software.

Because many government services are now provided by computer software, the action of the government cannot be transparent unless the programs that provide the services are transparent. If government makes a decision based on software, the people have a right to examine that software.

In some cases, as in the case of the Federal Aviation Administration or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, it is easy to see that the very lives of citizens depends upon software systems, and those systems should be open to examination and contribution from the public. If the action depends on software, for the action to be transparent as generally implied by the civil right of equal protection under the law, the software must be open-source, and freely testable.

In order for the citizens to have the right of potential contribution, the software must be freely modifiable without legal restraint.

Principle 2 — Procurement Transparency

In order to be fully transparent and accountable to the taxpayer in its procurement of software the government shall develop in an iterative way, inviting the public to view, use, comment on and contribute to its process, progress and code contemporaneously with its development.

Technology does not stand still. Software is never done. Software is always being constructed — -or becoming obsolete.

Because of the great investment in money and time that the public taxpayer makes in this construction, the government must build software in the most transparent way possible.

Software does not spring, like Athena, fully complete from the foreheads of programmers. Rather, it is developed in a long, often arduous and error-prone way over time. Efficient methodologies now exist and are widely used allowing a team to observe, communicate about, and measure this progress. These methodologies must now be used to open the development process to public comment.

If the public is paying taxes to develop a piece of software, it has the right to observe the construction of that piece of software. This implies that the government has a duty to publish not only the final code, but all intermediate code, wireframes, user interviews, ideas, tests, designs, and decisions every step of the way, at approximately the same time it is being developed.

Principle 3 — Execution Security

Because closed-source code is inherently insecure, the government shall use only free and open source software.

Closed-source software is inherently untrustworthy because by definition it must be a known to a small group of people, and everyone else is excluded from examining it. It must be known at least to the persons who worked on its development. If it is not developed both under the scrutiny of the public and with the idea of public scrutiny in mind, it is more likely to contain a security flaw.

If you attempt to keep the source code a secret, this vulnerability may be hidden for some time. The security of the public becomes dependent on keeping this secret.

A large computer program is a very hard secret to keep for several reasons:

  1. It unavoidably must be present on computers.
  2. The secret must be exposed at least to the persons who work on it.
  3. If the secret is divulged, you may never know.
  4. It is almost impossible to quickly change a large program, and therefore it is very hard to quickly change the secret if it is compromised.

Therefore, the public, whose money and sometimes very lives depend on the security of government software, should demand of its government the use only open source software.

Principle 4 — Democratization of Potential Contribution

In order to foster civic involvement and to save money and foster competition, the government shall facilitate the contribution of source code from the public.

Free speech allows us to criticize the government. This means we have the right to complain about the government; we also have the privilege and duty to constructively criticize by offering our talent and expertise to the government.

The government often invites comment on policy and plans from the public. That invitation must be extended completely to the realm of software development by inviting and facilitating constructive comments at every level of software development.

The public has the right to contribute potentially better code for every feature of every program in every week that the government is developing software. The creation of potential contributions of software should be completely democratized. Most persons are incapable of making informed comment on software, but none should be excluded from doing so.

If the government does not use an open process that furthermore invites and facilitates comment and potential contribution, it forestalls the civil right of free speech in the form of public comment.

The democratization of software development may be hoped to greatly decrease costs. It is unclear that the public at large will actually make gratis contributions which save the government money, but it is clear that the potential exists, and no harm can come from the potential.

Principle 5 — Contribution Security

In order to be secure, the government shall retain absolute control over what code is deployed and accepted as official code, without restricting the development of potential contributions in any way, and pay whatever it has to in order to obtain the technical capability of this review.

By providing a formal process for decision-making, representational government gives minorities a voice, but not tyranny. Everyone has freedom of speech, and nobody is free to dictate laws or actions. The government must democratize contribution of potential improvements, but must not abrogate its responsibility and power to decide what code is actually used.

There are two fundamental reasons for this. The first is the practical fact that it would be insecure to do so. If a person or minority has a right to force code to become part of a government project, that person has the power to sabotage the code. As a matter of practice, the government does confer this right on a small number of government contractors whenever it does not have sufficient staff to properly review with its own employees all code contributed by a contractor, which is fairly common. Luckily for us, government contractors are rarely saboteurs.

The second is a matter of principle. The people delegate the power and responsibility to the government to build software to which they will entrust their lives and livelihood. The government must retain in-house sufficient technical capability to create a trustworthy process of review for every line of code.

Ideally, this review would be carried out by the most trustworthy government servants, but in practice, and certainly today, this is not possible due to insufficient numbers of technical experts in the government. Review can be delegated to non-government employees in various ways, including in-house review, review by the public, and review by a firm that did not develop the code. However, the government must retain ultimate responsibility for this review. The Executive must accept this responsibility, and the government actors must be prepared to bravely call for help when the complexity of the review problem exceeds their technical ability.

How we changed the way the U.S. government commercializes science

Photo: U.S. Department of Energy

Photo: U.S. Department of Energy

The following post is re-published with permission from Steve Blank‘s blog. Steve interviews Errol Arkilic, former lead program director for the National Science Foundation I-Corps, which uses his Lean LaunchPad curriculum to teach scientists and engineers how to take their technology out of the lab and into the marketplace.

In my interview with Errol, we discussed the origins of the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps), how and why it was created, and how it changed the way the government commercializes scientific research.

Today he is the founder of M34 Capital, a seed capital fund that focuses on early-stage projects being spun out of academic and corporate research labs.

Listen to my entire interview with Errol:

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

The origins of National Science Foundation I-Corps

The I-Corps had a serendipitous start. Errol explains in this clip.

Errol: There was a unique opportunity in 2011 when the new director of National Science Foundation said, ‘We want to do something new and different [in helping scientists commercialize their technology].’ … He charged me .. to put together a mentorship program [for academic scientists]. We floated that around the office for about a week and said there was no way that that’s going to work.

We had to do something different. And right about that time you were publishing your notes to the Lean LaunchPad course in spring of 2011, Stanford, E245. … There was a blog post that you wrote … describing the first class at Stanford. I read it and I ran thing down the hall and said to my colleagues, ‘You’ve got to go read this.’ There was one element of the blog post where you described how you were teaching entrepreneurship like we were teaching art. You were going to give them deep lessons of theory and then you were going to dump them in the deep end, so to speak [and give them experiential practice.] That paragraph really resonated with a bunch of us at NSF, me included.

That was about the same time that Dr. Suresh said we want to do something different. It was a serendipitous moment.

Steve: …This is the first time I’m hearing the other side of it, … that you actually had a charter .. to do something different. From my side … I wrote the book [The Four Steps to the Epiphany], and while all the theory was in there, you couldn’t just hand somebody the book and expect them to do something. … We needed a way to teach entrepreneurship that was experiential and hands-on.  And much like the educational paradigm, I can tell you about it all the time, but if I actually make you do it, it’s going to stick a lot more.

The Lean LaunchPad class.. was an experiment that no one had ever run before. [Up until then] the capstone class – meaning the best class you could take for being an entrepreneur in a university – was how to write a business plan. Yet we all [anyone teaching who actually had founded a company] knew that in all honesty no business plan survives first contact with customers. But nothing else like [The Lean LaunchPad class] was being taught.

This [Lean LaunchPad class] was to me a major science experiment – having teams come in, write a business model, talk to 10 customers a week, have them present their results every week and actually be testing a series of of hypotheses.

And the blog you were reading, [was created because] I thought that the class was so crazy and different I … wanted to share what I was doing [with other educators]. And since I open source everything I do, you were the recipient of open source. I have to tell you that everybody who knew me said, ‘Steve these are the most boring blogs you’ll ever write. No one cares about a new class, and no one’s going to ever read them.’ The good news is that for any of you who ever wanted to publish something Errol is a great example of what happens if there is only one person who reads what you write. Something magical could happen.

So that’s when you picked up the phone and called.

Errol: That’s right. I picked up the phone and said, ‘I’ve been reading your blog, I’ve been monitoring E245 and said I’ve got a deal for you. I’ve got 10,000 principal investigators and they all have technologies and projects that they think might have commercial potential, and our job is to figure out a way to figure out whether or not here is. Oh by the way, there’s no funding for you.’

Steve: Thank goodness I was already retired and funding didn’t matter. … My memory of the call is that it kind of went, ‘Hi I’m Errol from the NSF,’ and after I said, ‘What’s the NSF?’ After a long pause and explanation, you said, ‘The U.S. government needs your help,’ and I remember saying, ‘The U.S. government already got my help for four years in Vietnam and they’re not getting it again.’ … I kind of remember there was an even longer pause on your end, as I’m assuming you were thinking, “do I have the right or wrong guy at the end of the phone?”

I was ready to hang up on the call until you said there are 10,000 potential scientists [who could be my students.] In my career, the most fun I ever had was working with and selling to people who were doing truly rocket science. I had to learn what they were doing to be able to understand how to sell to them … [so teaching a class for the NSF] was a new opportunity – could I figure out if we could take rocket scientists and teach them the basics of how to build a business.

Errol: And we did. And I think that the principles of the scientific method applied to the commercial opportunity is spot on. That’s what scientists and engineers needed to embrace.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

What made him call Steve?

“A consistent theme we recognized at NSF, was that a lot of the startup companies [we were funding] really weren’t practicing what we knew to be the best and most effective way of taking technologies out of labs. … What we saw were practices that any investor would look at and say there’s got to be a better way of doing it.  And it wasn’t exclusive to the [NSF commercialization] program. It was a crappy way [the U.S. government had] of taking technology out of [all of its] labs.”

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

How I-Corps Teams are selected

We started the interview process like most people – [we] asked about the idea and the status of the technology was and got spun up on the story. We pretty quickly identified that was the wrong way to go. Because really what we needed were teams that were totally aligned with one another and could work together under extreme pressure and extreme ambiguity because the ideas change anyway. … The teams that are coming together to investigate their commercial opportunity, they need to look way beyond the technical boundaries of their discipline to see if there is a business there. … The key thing is that we’re trying to take teams on a journey with us and with one anther, and some people are not amenable to change and not amenable to coaching and not amenable to advice.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here 

How the I-Corps has grown

Errol: The number is up at 550 teams [through the I-Corps classes]. And there’s scale being brought. You and I ran one, we ran two, and then we quickly identified we needed to bring additional Steve Blanks to the table and structure to put in place. We knew we that needed to duplicate the capacity. Stanford loaned us the resources to begin with but we knew that wasn’t in the long term sustainable, so while I was in NSF, we established a program that developed a structure that included a network of academic nodes that teach the course. … We brought on more schools. …

Steve: … If I remember, you and I brought on Georgia Tech, and then University of Michigan and then how many more?

Errol: The group after that is in NY it’s CUNY, NYU and Columbia. In DC it’s George Washington University, the University of Maryland and Virginia Tech, and now Johns Hopkins… in the Bay Area, there’s Berkeley, Stanford and UCSF.  … In Southern California, there’s Caltech, USC and UCLA. And in Texas, it’s the University of Texas at Austin, Rice and …

Steve: We’re losing count, but there’s a bunch of them now that started from that phone call. 550 teams; 20 universities [as nodes and another 36 as sites]; must be 30-40-50 instructors now playing Steve Blank. This kind of makes it one of the largest accelerators in the United States, probably up there with TechStars and Y Combinator except it’s a U.S. government accelerator that takes \ no equity. So, Errol, congratulations, you’ve created something wonderful.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Lessons for the country

I think the strong takeaway is that the commercial considerations must be done in parallel with the technical considerations. It’s not an after thought, it’s not something you come in later and tack on the end. If your goal is to get the technology out of the lab, it’s never too early to start thinking who the customer for that solution is. … If you are a scientist and you think that your science is addressing human needs, you better be talking to some humans. … I think the most rewarding element of the Innovation Corps is when a principle investigator comes back and says, ‘I’m now changing the way I think about crafting my research moving forward.’ That feedback is an incredible demonstration of a significant change.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

What is M34 Capital?

M34 is a fund that focuses on taking Customer Discovery and the Lean Startup process and applying it in the venture model. We look at companies at their earliest stage of development and we believe with our capital that through the approach of the lean process and customer discovery that we can get companies up the learning curve, up the value curve, more effectively than other approaches.  …  The companies that come out of I-Corps are primed for success but they still need help. That wasn’t surprising to us. We knew that there were gaps that needed to be filled – capital gaps, management gaps, experience gaps and we saw it as an opportunity to get back out and become an entrepreneur again. … We look across the board at any company that has the discipline of customer discovery and Lean and the reason we need that is because it’s just a different way of looking at things. It’s evidence-based, it’s the scientific method and when the company has that on Day Zero, the conversations that we have are just that more meaningful. … If they don’t get it, we’re not touching them. “

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

The changing relationship between tech and government

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (Photo: <a href="">DC Mayor's Office</a>)

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (Photo: DC Mayor’s Office)

Silicon Valley venture capital firm a16z hosts an excellent discussion with current Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and former mayor Adrian Fenty on its a16z Podcast series.

The episode, “The Changing Relationship Between Tech and Government,” touches on how the sharing economy has pushed government to let go of top-down innovation and find ways to collaborate with these new ventures, as well as get proactive in cultivating an environment that supports local startup ecosystems.

Bowser shares her thoughts on how mayors can work with these new firms to better gauge the pulse of the residents and advises tech entrepreneurs to focus on the largely untapped market market of human services, such as affordable housing, health and wellbeing and homelessness.

The discussion also underscores the importance tech firms must give to the third of Steve Case’s “3 P’s“: policy.


The web numbers behind NASA’s Pluto flyby

Pluto (Photo: NASA)

Pluto (Photo: NASA)

Flying by unchartered planetary territory is a good way to drive traffic to your website.

The General Services Administration’s Digital Analytics Program shared the numbers behind NASA’s web traffic during theJuly 14 New Horizons Pluto flyby and, according to DAP, received nearly 10 million page views and accounted for 42 percent of all government web traffic.

Other numbers:

  • 57 percent of traffic came from 231 countries/territories outside the U.S.
  • New visits accounted for 64 percent of traffic (up from an average of 56 percent)
  • Average session time was up to 4 minutes (from 2:25)

Full post