U.S. Government Ramping Up To Open Government National Action Plan Version 3.0

The White House posted this call for input on the third iteration of its National Action Plan for Open Government.  Version 1.0 came out in 2011, and version 2 was released in 2013.  Aside from supporting the Administration’s interests in making government data more available, the Plan is part of the U.S. commitment as a member of the Open Government Partnership.  At this point, the comment request is informal.  You can submit them via email, Twitter, or through a Hackpad collaborative tool.  (You’ll need to register on Hackpad to participate there.)

Comments can expand on existing initiatives in the National Action Plan or suggest new ones.  These plans emphasize transparency and increased public access to information (in usable formats).  Given the language in the current plan around citizen science, crowdsourcing, and whistleblower protections, I think it would be a good idea to suggest something about incorporating scientific integrity policies into the National Action Plan.

If you’re looking for guidance on suggestions, the Open Government Partnership has its own data portal, the Explorer.  There you can review submissions from all the participating countries.  You can also see the commitments governments have made and how well they have delivered (at least on some of them).

Thankfully Someone Is Thinking About The Tech Transition

We are still 20 months away from the next Presidential administration, but I don’t think it’s too early to consider how government technology will be handled over the transition.  Thankfully the Chief Technology Officer, Megan Smith, has been thinking about this as well.

At a recent technology conference in Washington D.C., Smith indicated that at least for the technology teams currently supporting federal agencies, she intends to have them continue for whomever the next President will be.  These teams, including the U.S. Digital Service and 18F, are focused on delivery of services for government agencies and to the public.  I think it would be valuable to ensure that the smooth delivery of government services can avoid any hiccups due to a change in administration.  Hopefully Smith and her staff can avoid any legal pitfalls in communicating with presidential campaigns (and eventually the transition team for whomever becomes the 45th President) about the needs for continuity of government at the level of services.

Not All Scientists Are Opposed To GMO Labeling

ScienceInsider reported yesterday that scientists in Germany are calling for labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMO).  The petition (which should be online any time now) goes beyond labeling for GMOs in food, to include such organisms in feed, drugs, textiles, chemicals, and other products that have been produced using genetic engineering.  Should the petition receive enough signatures by a certain time, the German Bundestag would have to consider the proposal.

I remain skeptical that the no-label position regarding GMO’s is the right move, so I welcome this petition effort.  Opposing labeling makes it look like there’s something to hide, which feeds into GMO opponents’ argument that the development and use of GMO’s has been deceptive in some fashion.  It also strikes me as anti-democratic and anti-transparency.  And while those might not be value positions linked to science, they are important values in policy decisions (the current debates over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement suffer from a similar challenge since the text of the agreement is not widely available).

Arguably the pro-GMO side has won, given the prevalence of these organisms in many items.  But the effort to prevent labeling has the potential to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  Maybe the German scientists are onto something.

NASA Needs To Print Its Shelters

During the Bay Area Maker Faire this weekend NASA and America Makes announced a new Centennial Challenge.  The 3D Printed Habitat Challenge asks competitors to develop 3D printing solutions that can help construct off-Earth habitat using materials either found at the site, reused from the mission, or some combination.  Put another way, NASA would like to build a habitat without having to haul the building materials from Earth.

There has been some 3D printing done in space, but this challenge would require printing on a much larger scale.  There are three phases to this challenge: Design, Structural Member and On-Site Habitat.  For now, the focus is on the Design phase.

Interested parties have until July 15 to submit their registration package, which includes an architectural sketch of the proposed habitat and description of the construction approach.  Each submission will be evaluated by a jury and those selected to continue will have to send in a full architectural design concept.  Teams might as well have the full concept ready, as the deadline for those will be August 3, not long after the registration packages are due.  Judges will select 30 entries for final review and judging at the New York Maker Faire, held September 26-27.

For more details on the design phase of the challenge, including rules and registration requirements, consult the Challenge website.  Details on the other two phases of the challenge will not likely be available until the registration opens for those competitions in late September.  While top prize in the design phase is $50,000, top prize in the other phases is $1.1 million.

How Many Deputy Chief Technology Officers Do We Need?

On Monday the White House announced that Dr. Ed Felten, a computer scientist who has served as the Chief Technologist for the Federal Trade Commission, would rejoin the Obama Administration as a Deputy Chief Technology Officer (CTO).  He becomes the fourth Deputy CTO in the, along with Alex Macgillivray, Ryan Panchadsaram, and D.J. Patil.  Patil’s title is Deputy CTO for Data Policy and he also holds the title of Chief Data scientist.

(Disclosure – I have worked with Felten in our respective capacities at the Association for Computing Machinery, where he is a Fellow and a member of the Associations U.S. Public Policy Council.)

While Patil’s policy responsibilities are still emerging, he is the only one of the four Deputy CTOs for whom I can find specific responsibilities.  While I appreciate the need for flexibility when trying to support technology and innovation policy, I find the absence of specific portfolios a bit curious.  Each of the Deputy CTOs has different backgrounds and experiences, so it makes sense for each of them to focus on different areas.  It would be nice to know if that was the case or not.

The continued expansion of the CTO’s Office reminds me again of how it does (or does not) fit within the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  The CTO’s Office is separate from the Technology and Innovation Division (where the policy responsibilities are much more explicit).  But if the mission of the CTO is sufficiently distinct from that of the Technology and Innovation Division, and the Administration is not keen on having the CTO also lead the Technology and Innovation Division, perhaps it would be better for the Office to be separate from OSTP entirely?

Readers may remember my preference on this matter, and your answer may be different.  But with the current Administration in its last two years, it’s not too early to try and figure out whether to continue this experiment, and how it might be different for the next President (assuming that person decides to keep the job).  Knowing more about how the current position (and office) are intended to operate can help inform that discussion.

How The Archives Wants The Government To Manage Its Email

If you have an interest in records keeping, you should be keeping track of the National Archives, where the Chief Architect, David Ferriero, has his own blog.  The latest post concerns how government agencies should manage their email.  When government email has been in the news in recent years, it’s often due to the use of non-governmental addresses to conduct official business.  (I consider the practice to be anti-transparency and believe it should be barred.)

In his post, Ferriero highlights the challenge of determining what should be kept and what should not.  With an estimate of 40 billion emails generated annually by the federal government, it’s an important and daunting challenge.  Recognizing that sorting through these emails (in addition to their other regular duties) is perhaps too much to ask of federal employees, the Archives is looking to the software industry for help in developing automated tools to make this identification and sorting manageable.

In the meantime, the Archives is implementing a system called Capstone.  Under Capstone, an agency’s designated federal employees would save all of their email as permanent records and non-designated employees would save their email for a designated period of time.  (Presumably during this time the agency can determine whether or not certain emails should be designated as worth making permanent records.) The Archives is using the system presently, and all federal agencies are encouraged to use Capstone or some similar system by the end of 2016.  By that time all e-mail records are expected to be available in an accessible electronic format.  Yes, that’s right, some e-mail records are not presently stored in an electronic format (accessible or not).

All of this is a separate issue from what former Secretary of State Clinton did with her own government emails.  Her actions certainly raise concerns over a possible conflict of interest concerning her actions in that office.  To be fair, the same scrutiny is worth casting over other presidential candidates and how they have (or have not) managed their official email to conduct business.  Why that hasn’t been the case is something worth considering.

Chief Technology Officer Bill Back, Now With New Sponsor

When President Obama decided to have a Chief Technology Officer (CTO), the position is not permanent.  At the moment, should his successor opt not to appoint one, the CTO position would cease to exist.

Since 2009, there have been two bills introduced to put the CTO position into law.  The bills, had either passed, would have put into law the specific requirements of the position, and establish a separate office for the CTO.  While this would make the position last longer than a single presidential administration, it would also remove a flexibility with the position that is reflected in the backgrounds and portfolios of the three CTO’s appointed by the Obama Administration.

The bills essentially make the CTO position into the head of information technology purchasing and implementation in the government.  That’s an important function, but there already is a federal chief information officer.  Ideally, at least from where I type, the CTO would be on par with the President’s chief science adviser.  Focusing the position on information technology runs the risk of making the job the government’s tech support, instead of a position focused on how to utilize all kinds of technology to support the government and serve the public.

There is now a third bill attempting to formalize the CTO position.  While the first two were sponsored by Representative Gerry Connolly (D-Virginia), the latest bill is sponsored by Representative Barry Loudermilk (R-Georgia), and co-sponsored by members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, where Loudermilk serves as chair of the Oversight Subcommittee.  The House Science Committee was not involved with the previous bills, which were considered by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.  The newest bill has been referred to both committees for consideration

The latest bill makes the CTO position optional, but would require any CTO appointment to also serve as the Associate Director for Technology and Innovation at the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  (The first CTO in the Obama Administration, Aneesh Chopra, served in both positions.  His successors did not.)  The bill does focus the CTO position on information technology responsibilities, but it does think a bit more broadly than IT.  The CTO would also handle information exchange between the Congress, the Executive Branch, and the public; agency records transparency; and technological interoperability.

I appreciate the greater breadth of portfolio in this bill, but I’d rather not see the CTO subsumed by the OSTP.  An equal partner is more to my liking, but your mileage may vary.  I don’t expect this bill to have a better fate than its predecessors, but it’s certainly not to soon to see what President Obama’s successors might do about a CTO.  Where does your candidate stand on the issue?