In the past few years, the shift in federal government agencies towards cloud computing and open data have significantly altered and improved agency mission delivery. Open data allows agencies to better accomplish their mission with better, low-cost access to information, as well as easily deliver this useful information to the public. Cloud computing allows agencies to better and more cost-effectively meet their IT infrastructure needs and allows for powerful new computing and analytics platforms, making agencies more effective and able to tackle new problems. Open data and cloud computing enable government agencies to deliver value to the public and private sectors in new and innovative ways and allow agencies to focus on addressing more pressing challenges.
Cloud computing and open data take two previously costly inputs—computing power and information—and make them dramatically cheaper. Government agencies invest large amounts of capital and time to build and manage their own data centers and IT infrastructure. Before cloud computing, this capacity had to be built based on estimates of future computing needs and could not be adjusted easily, contributing to inefficient utilization of resources. Cloud computing allows for an agency’s data requirements to be met in an on-demand and scalable manner, improving efficiency and saving money. With requirements for agencies to publish their data online and in machine-readable formats, the process of distributing government data became streamlined. Agencies no longer need to spend nearly as much time and money on packaging and distributing their data for others to use, nor do they need to request data from other agencies for their own use, as this data is now often open and easily accessible.
Open data and cloud computing allow agencies to easily share their data internally and with other agencies to derive new insights from this data. For example, the Consumer Sentinel Network is a group of dozens of federal, state, and local agencies that share data on consumer complaints about problems like identity theft and telemarketing scams to help protect consumers against malicious activities. Cloud computing also allows for more opportunities for data to be shared with the private sector and general public. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which expects its data stores to grow by 90,000 terabytes per year by 2020 yet only has the capacity to make a small percentage of this available to the public, is turning to cloud solutions to help make this data publicly available. NOAA expects the scalability and ease of deployment of these cloud solutions will help reduce the bottleneck effect that limited government IT infrastructure can have on organizations and businesses that rely on government data.
With this increased capacity to address IT and information needs, government agencies can prioritize another crucially important input: human capital. One of the reasons the private sector routinely outperforms the government is its increased capacity to attract and develop this human capital. The skills involved in working with data are highly valuable, and considering that workers educated in data science are in low supply, workers with these skills have little incentive to take a job at a resource-tight federal agency that could not afford to pay them the market value for their labor. Government agencies can now focus on how to address this challenge and improve their performance. Just last year, the General Services Administration launched 18F, an agency devoted to developing and improving digital services throughout the federal government. 18F hosts the competitive Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which attracts highly-skilled technologists to improve government services with open data, such as making education for accessible and improving opportunities for private sector entrepreneurs. Efforts to engage better human capital has also given rise events like Health Datapalooza and civic hacking challenges, which attract top tier talent and gives them the data they need to solve real problems. Last year’s National Day of Civic Hacking brought together volunteer developers, entrepreneurs, and concerned citizens to come up with over one hundred solutions to 38 global challenges by using open government data.
For all the benefits cloud computing and open data offer, there is still work to be done. Agencies must be sure to maintain momentum in cloud adoption as they move on from the low hanging fruit that are easy to transfer to the cloud, such as email and storage, to more specialized applications like those related to healthcare and defense. On the open data side, currently all requirements for federal agencies to provide their data freely to the public are supported solely by executive orders and actions, which do not carry the weight of the law and could be easily overturned by a future administration. Furthermore, these open requirements do not apply to certain data, such as data from federal contractors. Initiatives to accelerate the adoption of these practices in government, such as the Cloud First policy and the Open Government Directive are just a few years old each, but have already greatly benefitted how the government operates. While federal agencies have taken an important first step by making open data and cloud computing part of the government playbook, there is still a long road ahead to improve how IT delivers value for government.
Image: flickr user Yusuke Kawasaki.