The federal government: Most interesting start-up of '09

Tuesday - 8/18/2009, 3:44pm EDT

Anil Dash

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By Dorothy Ramienski
Internet Editor
FederalNewsRadio

It was called 'the most interesting start-up of 2009' by one blogger -- and it's closer than you think.

The federal government.

Anil Dash is a renowned blogger and vice president at a company that he co-founded called Six Apart.

He talked more about it on the Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris.

One of the main reasons for his recent post, he said, is that the federal government is simply fascinating as a product in the first place.

"In this case, I look at sites like data.gov, recovery.gov, usaspending.gov. [These are] really, really useful tools that anybody can kind of immediately go on their Web browser and get some value out of, but, on top of that, there's something for programmers, coders, developers to go on top of. They can take those raw materials and make new applications with them. They can make new tools with them."

Dash said the federal government is unique because it offers tools that are attractive at first glance that also have a deeper value to them.

He likens the start-up environment to controlled chaos.

"It takes a firm hand. It takes a clear sense of purpose and a clear goal that's defined, but I think this is the area where people that have decided to join the federal government probably already have that inclination. They know there are a pretty clear set of goals and visions for this administration. I think there is actually a clarity of purpose that is not true in the private sector, because you explicitly have a platform of what you're trying to do. You have an agenda that's been articulated publicly."

He did acknowledge, however, that the federal government is uneven when it comes to adopting new technology.

He also didn't say he believed that government became instantly better; rather, he calls the federal government the most interesting start-up of 2009 for a specific reason.

"It's just that the projects where people have had the right resources and the right access and have been given free range to go full tilt toward what they're trying to achieve, they've been able to pull off some amazing results."

Dash said certain individual projects have been so compelling, they make the whole executive branch look good.

"There is obviously thousands and thousands of people and tons and tons of resources that need to be directed and hopefully refined into these much more ambitious projects, but these few groups that have been able to really cut loose and do what they can do have reached an amazing potential in a very short period."

In addition, Dash said it is possible that future IT infrastructure has been laid out for the benefit of the public in ways we can't even imagine yet.

"If we can make some systems that let people build on top of what the government is doing, there's no reason that flow of data that's coming out of the executive branch can't have just as much potential as one [such as] the highway system where, yes, it was directed by the federal government, but it's something where all the innovation, all the opportunity that happens in the private sector [and] academia -- all of these things are built on top of that."

One of the pitfalls of a start up is knowing how to move forward.

Dash said he sees a couple of big challenges right off the bat, the first involving a change in culture.

"Any time there's a relatively new administration, there's going to be a certain cultural change, but this is bigger than that. This is really about changing the way that we think of what public data -- or public information -- means. In the past, [public meant] maybe it can be printed on some paper, filed in a box and stored away so that somebody can file a Freedom of Information Act to be able to see it. But [now] is a radical redefinition of what public means, which is actually accessible -- actually browsable -- something that I can be sitting there on my couch with my laptop and get you."

While it is exciting, Dash also noted that many aren't used to it.

The speed, combined with an overall changing of the mindset of federal employees, could prove a daunting challenge for some federal agencies.

"It is a new generation -- and I don't necessarily mean about age -- but in terms of mindset, this is a new generation of people working on these projects. It's going to be a challenge to make these people feel comfortable and like their talents are being recognized."