Month: July 2017

Government Blockchain Association wants to facilitate public sector blockchain awareness, adoption

The newly-formed Government Blockchain Association is a 501(c)(6) nonprofit corporation that wants to create relationships “between and among technologists, public policy makers, application specialists and those who simply need to understand the new and emerging digital currencies that will change the world.”

GBA Vice President Dan Callahan shares the vision and mission.

For those unfamiliar with blockchain, what’s your ‘simple’ answer?

As a member-driven professional association, we have a fairly broad mission statement; that is to help governments across the world to understand and use blockchain technology to improve their processes.

Essentially, this is to reinvent government bureaucracy with a better, faster and cheaper (and more secure) set of solutions.

What areas are obvious for government blockchain usage?

When you think about the endless tasks, challenges and missions that governments must deal with, it boggles the mind. Here in America, government agency mission creep—at all levels, has occurred over the last four to five decades and it never seems to be easy or inexpensive to improve. But we must find new ways to make our public agencies more responsive and help them better leverage the public monies with which they are entrusted.

My favorite use of blockchain is the prevention of fraud in the distribution of what are called transfer payments. These are payments such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, welfare, and other benefits.

I also see grants through organizations such as the United Nations as another area where, without too much effort, we can use blockchain to significantly eliminate billions of dollars in fraud.

We will periodically publish a list of use cases to our members; recently, even a U.S. Congressman offered to “compare notes” with us so we can keep each other updated on the most interesting and compelling use cases.

What was the story and inspiration for starting Government Blockchain Association?

As president of the association, Gerard Dache is the visionary, and I have about three decades of federal IT experience. His vision began to solidify when one of his sons made some very interesting gains in the bitcoin space. After a couple of years, Gerard realized that there is truly something here worth levering in a much broader way. Who doesn’t want better government, right?

So, in the Winter of 2016-2017, he approached me and asked to help build-out the vision.

What is the Government Blockchain Association and why now?

We want to maintain a niche focus on the nexus of blockchain and its application across the public sector. At times this is too broad, but at other times it’s a niche when compared to the general IT marketplace and some of the other associations that exist. The timing is good since we are absolutely seeing public sector agencies taking a real and substantive look at using blockchain, and in some international cases, they are already becoming mature.

What’s next for GBA?

Our first threshold was to attract individual professionals. In a matter of weeks we attracted about eight hundred who agree with our mission and believe they can contribute. Our next phase, beginning mid-summer 2017, is to attract corporate members who can also contribute. I believe we’ll see small, medium and large corporations jumping in soon, because they see that the future of blockchain is not merely hype.

How can others interested connect and learn more?

We intentionally try to keep membership and event fees low. As any nonprofit would desire, we want to provide a high value in return for reasonable membership fees, but I stress to all members, get involved in any way possible. Become a part of the conversation, the networking, the working groups, publish your ideas, start a GBA Chapter in a city where is there currently not a chapter. These kind of things really help members get their money’s worth.

Washington gives national security innovation a boost

Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

Two good things just happened in Washington – these days that should be enough of a headline.

First, someone ideal was just appointed to be Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense.

Second, funding to teach our Hacking for Defense class across the country just was added to the National Defense Authorization Act.

Interestingly enough, both events are about how the best and brightest can serve their country – and are testament to the work of two dedicated men.

Soldier, Scholar, Entrepreneur

Joe Felter was just appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia. As a result, our country just became a bit safer and smarter. That’s because Joe brings a wealth of real-world experience and leadership to the role.

I got lucky to know and teach with Joe at Stanford. When we met, my first impression was that of a very smart and pragmatic academic. And I also noticed that there was always a cloud of talented grad students who wanted to follow him. (I learned later I was watching one of the qualities of a great leader.) Joe had appointments at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), where he was the co-director of the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project and at the Hoover Institute where he was a research fellow. I learned he’d gone to Harvard to get his MPA at the Kennedy School of Government in conflict resolution. But the thing that really caught my attention: his Stanford Ph.D thesis in Political Science had the world’s best title: “Taking Guns to a Knife Fight: A Case for Empirical Study of Counterinsurgency.” I wondered how this academic knew anything about counterinsurgency.

This was another reminder that when you reach a certain age, people you encounter may have lived multiple lives, had multiple careers, and had multiple acts. It took me a while to realize that Joe had one heck of a first act before coming to Stanford in 2011.

As I later discovered, Joe’s first act was 24 years in the Army Special Operations Forces (SOF), retiring as a Colonel.
His Special Forces time was with the 1st Special Forces Group as a team leader and later as a company commander. He did a tour with the 75th Ranger Regimentas a platoon leader. In 2005, he returned to West Point (where he earned his undergrad degree) and ran the Combating Terrorism Center. Putting theory into practice, he went to Iraq in 2008 as part of the 75th Ranger Regiment, in support of a Joint Special Operations Task Force. In 2010 Joe was in Afghanistan as the Commander of the Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team. At various points his Special Forces career took him to countries in Southeast Asia where counterinsurgency was not just academics.

Ironically, I was first introduced to Joe not at Stanford but through one of his other lives – that of an entrepreneur and businessman – at the company he founded, BMNT Partners. It was there that Joe and I along with another retired Army Colonel, Pete Newell, came up with the idea of creating the Hacking for Defense class. We combined the Lean Startup methodology – used by the National Science Foundation to commercialize science  – with the rapid problem sourcing and solution methodology Pete developed on the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq when he ran the US Army’s Rapid Equipping Force.

My interest was to get Stanford students engaged in national service and exposed to parts of the U.S. government where their traditional academic path and business career would never take them. (I have a strong belief that we’ve run a 44-year experiment with what happens when you disconnect the majority of Americans from any form of national service. And the result hasn’t been good for our country. Today if college students want to give back to their country, they think of Teach for America, the Peace Corps, or Americorps or perhaps the U.S. Digital Service or the GSA’s 18F. Few consider opportunities to make the world safer with the Department of Defense, State Department, Intelligence Community or other government agencies.)

Joe, Pete and I would end up building a curriculum that would turn into a series of classes — first, Hacking for Defense, then Hacking for Diplomacy (with the State Department and Professor Jeremy Weinstein), Hacking for EnergyHacking for Impact, etc.

Hacking For Defense

Our first Hacking for Defense class in 2016 blew past our expectations – and we had set a pretty high bar. (See the final class presentations here and here).

Our primary goal was to teach students entrepreneurship while they engaged in national public service.

Our second goal was to introduce our sponsors – the innovators inside the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community –  to a methodology that can help them understand and better respond to rapidly evolving asymmetric threats. We believed if we could get teams to rapidly discover the real problems in the field using Lean methods, and only then articulate the requirements to solve them, then defense acquisition programs could operate at speed and urgency and deliver timely and needed solutions.

Finally, we also wanted to show our sponsors in the Department of Defense that students can make meaningful contributions to understanding problems and rapid prototyping of solutions to real-world national security problems.

The Innovation Insurgency Spreads

Fast forward a year. Hacking for Defense is now offered at eight universities in addition to Stanford – Georgetown, University of PittsburghBoise StateUC San Diego, James Madison University, University of Southern Mississippi, and later this year University of Southern California and Columbia University. We established Hacking for, a non-profit to train educators and provide a single point of contact for connecting the DOD/IC sponsor problems to these universities.

By the middle of this year Hacking For Defense started to feel like it had the same momentum as when my Lean LaunchPad class at Stanford got adopted by the National Science Foundation and became the Innovation Corps (I-Corps). I-Corps uses Lean Startup methods to teach scientists how to turn their discoveries into entrepreneurial, job-producing businesses. Over 1,000 teams of our nation’s best scientists have been through the program. It has changed how federally funded research is commercialized.

Recognizing that it’s a model for a government program that’s gotten the balance between public/private partnerships just right, last fall Congress passed the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, making the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps a permanent part of the nation’s science ecosystem.

It dawned on Pete, Joe and me that perhaps we could get Congress to fund the national expansion of Hacking for Defense the same way. But serendipitously, the best person we were going to ask for help had already been thinking about this.

The Congressman From Science and Innovation
Before everyone else thought that teaching scientists how to build companies using Lean Methods might be a good for the country, there was one congressman who got it first.

In 2012, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Il), ranking member on the House Research and Technology Subcommittee, got on an airplane and flew to Stanford to see first-hand the class that would become I-Corps. For the first few years Lipinski was a lonely voice in Congress saying that we’ve found a better way to train our scientists to create companies and jobs. But over time, his colleagues became convinced that it was a non-partisan good idea. Rep. Lipinski was responsible for helping I-Corps proliferate through the federal government.

While Joe Felter and Pete Newell were thinking about approaching Congressman Lipinski about funding for Hacking for Defense Lipinski had already been planning to do so. As he recalled, “I was listening to your podcast as I was working in my backyard cutting, digging, chopping, etc. (yes, I do really work in my backyard,) when it dawned on me that funding Hacking for Defense as a national program – just like I did for the Innovation Corps – would be great for our nation’s defense when we are facing new unique threats. I tasked my staff to draft an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act and I sponsored the amendment.”

(The successful outcome of I-Corps has given the Congressman credibility on entrepreneurship education among his peers. And it doesn’t hurt that he has a Ph.D and was a university professor before he ended up in Congress.)

Joe Felter and Pete Newell mobilized a network of Hacking for Defense supporters. Joe and Pete’s reputations preceded them on Capitol Hill, but in part a testament to the strength of Hacking for Defense, there’s now a large network of people who have experienced and believe in the program, and were willing to help out by writing letters of support, reaching out to other members of Congress to ask for support, and providing Congressman Lipinski’s office with information and background.

Congressman Lipinski led the amendment. He brought on co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle: Representatives Steve Knight (R-CA 25), Ro Khanna (D-CA 17), Anna Eshoo (D-CA 18), Seth Moulton (D-MA 6) and Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH 1).

On the floor of the House, Lipinski said, “Rapid, low-cost technological innovation is what makes Silicon Valley revolutionary, but the DOD hasn’t historically had the mechanisms in place to harness this American advantage. Hacking for Defense creates ways for talented scientists and engineers to work alongside veterans, military leaders, and business mentors to innovate solutions that make America safer.”

Last Friday the House unanimously approved an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act authorizing the Hacking for Defense (H4D) program and enabling the Secretary of Defense to expend up to $15 million to support development of curriculum, best practices, and recruitment materials for the program.

This week the H4D amendment moves on to the Senate and Joe Felter moves on to the Pentagon. Both of those events have the potential to make our world a much safer place – today and tomorrow.

Register for DKAN Open Data Summit

Government has very few true open source open data options, and DKAN is one of them.

For those passionate about cultivating a more sustainable, open source oriented open data community, the first DKAN Open Data Summit is scheduled for August 1, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

DKAN Open Data Summit will be held in tandem with Drupal GovCon, and you must register for the latter to attend the former.

DKAN currently powers several federal, state and local government open data platforms, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the state of California, Louisville and many others.


(Note: CivicActions is the lead organizer of DKAN Open Data Summit. See disclosures.)

Values for government technology

Earlier this year, CityGrows co-founder Catherine Geanuracos proposed values for government technology, and its a great foundation for those serving government or the public to adopt.

These include:

  • Transparency
  • Interoperability
  • Reflective of the community
  • Experimentation and iteration
  • Portability
  • Participatory
  • Open source

Catherine and co-founder Stephen Corwin also touch on the term “movement” as it relates to govtech or civictech, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. Deeper thoughts on this are for another post, but I don’t think either are movements, particularly because there are no real fundamental principles folks in the community can agree on. In order to be a true movement, there must be hardened principles, and Catherine’s are the beginnings of this.

As Catherine mentions, I’m one who strongly believes open source should be at the top of the list, because this is fundamental to everything else below. Unfortunately, as with most government technology companies, CityGrows’ own statement around open source is fairly noncommittal. As mentioned in the post, they are “far from perfect alignment” with the proposed values, so I hope that over time they start to think more open when it comes to their own code.

For those that provide technology services or products to government in this maker meets creative commons day and age, it’s important to realize we live in different times. If you continue to use proprietary in your lexicon or business model, you’ve dated yourself and placed the emphasis on you, your motives and not those of the public.

While it’s tough to overcome the idea that we must control code to be viable, we must accept that even if your interface is better or you have a solid API, you’re only adding incrementally to the innovation and change that’s desperately needed. Eventually, your proprietary technology will be a just a modernized version of the technical morass government finds itself in today.

Open source isn’t just code, it’s culture. The technology license on your product is inherently attached to the civic culture you cultivate. Applying proprietary technology to government is giving license to closed government.

Catherine’s outline for government technology values is a great start. With more solidity on standards for each of these, govtech and civictech can become true movements. Until then, they’re still just industries with loose standards.