Cloud Kool-Aid

Cloud Cool Aid

We’ve all drunk the Kool-Aid and believe in using the cloud.

And with almost 1 million active apps alone in the Apple Store it is no wonder why.

The cloud can create amazing opportunities for shared services and cost efficiencies.

The problem is that many are using the cloud at the edge.

They are taking the cloud to mean that they in government are simply service brokers, rather than accountable service providers.

In the service broker model, CIOs and leaders look for the best, cost effective service to use.

However, in NOT recognizing that they are the ultimate service providers for their customers, they are trying to outsource accountability and effectiveness.

Take for example, the recent failures of Healthcare.gov, there were at least 55 major contractors involved, but no major end-to-end testing done by HHS.

We can’t outsource accountability–even though the cloud and outsourcing is tempting many to do just that.

Secretary Sebelius has said that the buck stops with her, but in the 3 1/2 years leading up to the rollout relied on the big technology cloud in the sky to provide the solution.

Moreover, while Sebelius as the business owner is talking responsibility for the mission failures of the site, isn’t it the CIO who should be addressing the technology issues as well?

IT contractors and cloud providers play a vital role in helping the government develop and maintain our technology, but at the end of the day, we in the government are responsible to our mission users.

The relationship is one of partners in problem solving and IT product and service provision, rather than service brokers moving data from one cloud provider to the next, where a buck can simply be saved regardless of whether mission results, stability and security are at risk.

In fact, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, outlines the 3 successful principles used in the creation of consumerfinance.gov by the new CFPB, and it includes: “Have in-house strategy, design, and tech”!

Some in government say we cannot attract good IT people.

Maybe true, if we continue to freeze salaries, cut benefits, furlough employees, and take away the zest and responsibility for technology solutions from our own very talented technologists.

Government must be a place where we can attract technology talent, so we can identify requirements with our customers, work with partners on solutions, and tailors COTS, GOTS, open source solutions and cloud services to our mission needs.

When Sebelius was asked on The Hill about whether Healthcare.gov crashed, she said it never crashed, which was technically incorrect as the site was down.

The cloud is great source for IT provision, but the pendulum is swinging too far and fast, and it will by necessity come back towards the center, where it belongs as an opportunity, not a compliance mandate.

Hopefully, this will happen before too many CIOs gut the technology know-how they do have and the accountability they should provide.

(Source Photo: Andy Blumenthal)

Healthcare.gov – Yes, Yes, and Yes

Yes, Yes, and Yes

Healthcare.gov was rolled out on October 1.

Since then there has been lots of bashing of the site and fingerpointing betweeen government overseers and contractors executing it.

Some have called for improvements down the line through further reform of government IT.

Others have called for retribution by asking for the resignation of the HHS Secretary Sebelius.

Publication after publication has pointed blame at everything from/to:

– A labyrinth government procurement process

– Not regularly using IT best practices like shared services, open source, cloud computing, and more

– An extremely large and complex system rollout with changing requirements

And the answer is yes, yes, and yes.

Government procurement is complex and a highly legislated functional area where government program managers are guided to hiring small, disadvantaged, or “best value” contract support through an often drawn-out process meant to invoke fairness and opportunity, while the private sector can hire the gold standard of who and what they want, when they want, period.

Government IT is really a partnership of public and private sector folks that I would image numbers well in the hundreds of thousands and includes brand name companies from the esteemed defense and aerospace industries to small innovators and entrepreneurs as well as a significant number of savvy government IT personnel. Having worked in both public and private sector, I can tell you this is true–and that the notion of the government worker with the feet up and snoozing is far from the masses of truth of hardworking people, who care about their important mission serving the public. That being said, best practices in IT and elsewhere are evolving and government is not always the quickest to adopt these. Typically, it is not bleeding edge when it comes to safety and security of the public, but more like followers–sometimes fast, but more often with some kicking and screaming as there is seemingly near-constant change, particularly with swirling political winds and shifting landscapes, agendas, lobbyists, and stakeholders wanting everything and the opposite.

Government rollout for Healthcare.gov was obviously large and complex–it “involves 47 different statutory provisions and extensive coordination,” and impacted systems from numerous federal agencies as well as 36 state governments using the services. While rollouts from private sector companies can also be significant and even global, there is often a surgical focus that goes on to get the job done. In other words, companies choose to be in one or another business (or multiple businesses) as they want or to spin off or otherwise dislodge from businesses they no longer deem profitable or strategic. In the government, we frequently add new mission requirements (such as the provision of universal healthcare in this case), but hardly ever take away or scale back on services. People want more from the government (entitlements, R&D, secure borders, national security, safe food and water, emergency response, and more), even if they may not want to pay for it and seek the proverbial “smaller government” through less interference and regulation.

Is government IT a walk in the park, believe me after having been in both the public and private sectors that it is not–and the bashing of “cushy,” federal jobs is a misnomer in so many ways. Are there people that take advantage of a “good, secure, government job” with benefits–of course there are some, but I think those in the private sector can look in the offices and cubes next to them and find quite a number of their colleagues that would fit that type of stereotype as well.

We can learn a lot from the private sector in terms of best practices, and it is great when people rotate from the private sector to government and vice versa to cross-pollinate ideas, processes, and practices, but the two sectors are quite different in mission, (often size and complexity), constituents, politics, and law–and not everything is a slam dunk from one to the other. However, there are very smart and competent people as well as those who can do better in both–and you fool yourself perhaps in your elitism if you think this is not the case.

Are mistakes made in government IT–definitely yes. Should there be accountability to go with the responsibility–absolutely yes. Will we learn from our mistakes and do better in the future–the answer must be yes. 😉

Platforms – Open or Closed

Closed_open

Ever since the battles of Windows versus Linux, there have been two strong competing philosophies on systems architecture.

Many have touted the benefits of open architecture–where system specifications are open to the public to view and to update.

Open sourced systems provide for the power of crowdsourcing to innovate, add-on, and make the systems better as well as provides less vendor lock-in and lower costs.

Open Source —–> Innovation, Choice, and Cost-Savings

While Microsoft–with it’s Windows and Office products–was long the poster child for closed or proprietary systems and has a history of success with these, they have also come to be viewed, as TechRepublic(July 2011) points out as having an “evil, monopolistic nature.”

However, with Apple’s rise to the position of the World’s most valuable company, closed solutions have made a strong philosophical comeback.

Apple has a closed architecture, where they develop and strictly control the entire ecosystem of their products.

Closed systems provides for a planned, predictable, and quality-controlled architecture, where the the whole ecosystem–hardware, software and customer experience can be taken into account and controlled in a structured way.

Closed Systems —–> Planning, Integration, and Quality Control

However, even though has a closed solutions architecture for it’s products, Apple does open up development of the Apps to other developers (for use on the iPhone and iPad). This enables Apple to partner with others and win mind share, but still they can retain control of what ends-up getting approved for sale at the App Store.

I think what Apple has done particularly well then is to balance the use of open and closed systems–by controlling their products and making them great, but also opening up to others to build Apps–now numbering over 500,000–that can leverage their high-performance products.

Additionally, the variety and number of free and 99 cent apps for example, show that even closed systems, by opening up parts of their vertical model to partners, can achieve cost-savings to their customers.

In short, Apple has found that “sweet spot”–of a hybrid closed-open architecture–where they can design and build quality and highly desirable products, but at the same time, be partners with the larger development community.

Apple builds a solid and magnificent foundation with their “iProducts,” but then they let customers customize them with everything from the “skins” or cases on the outside to the Apps that run on them on the inside.

Closed-Open Systems —–> Planned, Integrated, and Quality PLUS Innovation, Choice, and Cost-Savings

Closed-Open Systems represent a powerful third model for companies to choose from in developing products, and which benefits include those from both open and closed systems.

CPR by iPhone

Great new iPhone App by the San Ramon Fire Department called FireDepartment.
This life-saving iPhone app notifies citizens trained in CPR (that have opted-in) of a cardiac emergency occurring in a public area near them.
An article in Government Technology (May 2011) explains that citizens can “start administering CPR before first responders arrive at the scene.
The problem it addresses is that generally it takes about 7 minutes from a heart attack to death, and it can take about just as long for rescue crews to reach victims.
So, if there are qualified people in the vicinity that can help in the the crucial minutes in between, they can literally save lives.
This is how it works:
1) Emergency dispatchers receive a call for help.
2) They enter “CPR assistance needed” into the dispatch system. 
3) First responders AND local citizens with the CPR app (within 500 feet of the emergency) are alerted.  
4) Location-based technology in the iPhone directs you to not only where the assistance is needed but also to where the nearest automated external defibrillator (AED) can be found. 
“If you’re at Starbucks and next door at the deli someone goes down, you’re getting a notification.”
Currently, the app covers San Ramon County’s 155 miles, but there are plans to make it available as open source code to other jurisdictions across the country as well. 
The app was developed with the help of Fire Chief Richard Price who previously was a software engineer and is bringing a new technology focus to life-saving emergency response. 
There are also iPhone apps that walk you through performing CPR, such as CPR-Choking and CPR Hero.  
Hopefully, we never need these apps, but it’s good to know people and information are there to help just an iPhone app away. 

>Civic Commons-A Lesson In Sharing

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Love this concept on Civic Commons that was presented at the Gov 2.0 Summit (2010) and is now becoming a reality.

Presented by Bryan Sivak the CTO for DC–Civic Commons is about governments collaborating and building technology once and reusing multiple times, rather than reinventing the wheel over and over again–a critical enterprise architecture principle.

Governments have similar needs and can share common solutions–products and projects–for these.

A number of successful examples:

1) DC and San Francisco building Open 311 (which I wrote about in a prior blog).
2) Minnesota building a $50 Million Unemployment Insurance System and then sharing it with Iowa who implemented it at less than 1/2 that.

Some initial products that have been committed:

1) White House IT Federal Dashboard
2) Track DC (Operational Dashboard)
3) San Francisco Master Address Database Geocoder
4) New York Senate’s Open Legislation Application

And more will be coming…all of which can be used and improved upon.

It is great to see so many state governments collaborating–across the Nation–from Seattle to LA, Boston, San Francisco, NY, and Chicago. Moreover, they are coordinating with the Federal Government, as well as with supporting organizations, such as OpenPlans, Code For America, O’Reilly Media, and more that are helping with coordination, facilitation, and support.

This is another great step in breaking down the silos that separate us and becoming more efficient in working together and learning to share what can benefit many.

>Power To The People

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Seeclickfix1

From potholes to garbage, broken street lights to vandalism…we want to get our community problems resolved.

There is a good-looking application called “SeeClickFixfor connecting people and government to point out problems and get them fixed, fast.

It works with iPhone, Droids, and Blackberries; integrates with Facebook and Twitter; and has dashboard reporting and alerts, as well as emails notifications to provide acknowledgements and status updates on issues.
Built on the Open311 model, which provides APIs to existing internal systems and processes, so citizens report non-emergency issues to government based on standardized, open-access, and interoperable systems.

Open 311 describes how it works:

Using a mobile device or a computer, someone can enter information (ideally with a photo) about a problem…This report is then routed to the relevant authority to addressthis information is available for anyone to see and…contribute more informationBy making the information public, it provides transparency and accountability for those responsible for the problem.”

According to an article, iCitizen, in Fast Company (December 2010-January 2011), reported problems from citizen’s smartphones or computers can even be routed straight to dashboard computers on public works trucks, “meaning a click in the morning can lead to a repair in the afternoon.”

Ok, this may still be more vision than reality at this time, but it is a noble vision, indeed!

This is an evolution from 311 phones systems in many cities which are one way communications from individuals calling into government call centers and then waiting, waiting, waiting to see if the problem gets resolved to instead applications like SeeClickFix as a highly visible cloud solution where many people can openly exchange information over the Internet on public issues–providing more information, even potentially rating and ranking them (i.e. helping set public priorities for allocating limited public resources to community problems).

This can even be coupled with suggestion platforms such as IdeaScale for crowd-sourced citizen input into urban planning and community health, safety, and livability issues.

As part of its Apps for Democracy contest, DC awarded a prize and grant for the development of FIxMyCityDC, a web-based application for submitting service requests, checking status by interactive maps, along with the option of the user getting a call when the problem is resolved.

This is huge progress from the prior endlessly annoying call centers and their Interactive Voice Response Units that previously took callers through a maze of pre-recorded numeric options that more-often than not ended in the users abandoning the call and service requests going unfilled.

This is a far better model of information sharing, collaboration and transparency to solve real everyday problems in our communities, and a great example of the power of e-Government.

>Staying Open to Open Source

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I don’t know about you, but I have always been a pretty big believer that you get what you pay for.

That is until everything Internet came along and upended the payment model with so many freebies including news and information, email and productivity tools, social networking, videos, games, and so much more.

So when it comes to something like open source (“free”) software, is this something to really take seriously for enterprise use?

According to a cover story in ComputerWorld, 10 May 2010, called “Hidden Snags In Open Source” 61% say “open source has become more acceptable in enterprises over the past few years.” And 80% cited cost-savings as the driving factor or “No. 1 benefit of open-source software.”

However, many companies do not want to take the risk of relying on community support and so “opt to purchase a license for the software rather than using the free-of-charge community version…to get access to the vendor’s support team or to extra features and extensions to the core software, such as management tools.”

To some degree then, the license costs negates open source from being a complete freebie to the enterprise (even if it is cheaper than buying commercial software).

The other major benefit called out from open source is its flexibility—you’ve got the source code and can modify as you like—you can “take a standard install and rip out the guts and do all kinds of weird stuff and make it fit the environment.”

The article notes a word of caution on using open source from Gartner analyst Mark Driver: “The key to minimizing the potential downside and minimizing the upside is governance. Without that you’re shooting in the dark.”

I think that really hits the target on this issue, because to take open source code and make that work in a organization, you have got to have mature processes (such as governance and system development life cycle, SDLC) in place for working with that code, modifying it, and ensuring that it meets the enterprise requirements, integrates well, tests out, complies with security, privacy and other policies, and can be adequately supported over its useful life.

If you can’t do all that, then the open source software savings ultimately won’t pan out and you really will have gotten what you paid for.

In short, open source is fine, but make sure you’ve got good governance and strong SDLC processes; otherwise you may find that the cowboys have taken over the Wild West.