Musings from Tech@State

I had the pleasure of attending the Tech@State event at the US Department of State last Friday (11 February 2011).  The theme was open source. Thanks to Noel Dickover who invited me to speak on the panel on Open Source to the Rescue: Disaster Response and Humanitarian Assistance.

Heather Blanchard (CrisisCommons), Deb Bryant (OSUOSL), Mark Prutsalis (Sahana Software Foundation) and John Crowley (Harvard Humanitarian Initiative) at Tech@State

Big shout out to Deb Bryant of the Oregon State University Open Source Lab who gave Sahana a big shout out in a general session…. along with Lin Wells of NDU and Star-Tides, who also noted Sahana’s role in the Haiti response. Thanks guys.

The rest are some random notes and thoughts I noted on my iPad throughout the day (using Evernote, which seamlessly syncs and categorizes and tags notes between my iPad, Nexus One and Windows 7 Thinkpad T510… what a lifesaver… and it’s free software!!!):

Thoughts from the General Sessions:

  • Aneesh Chopra, CIO of the United States, quoting the President: “I want a government more open and transparent.”
  • The Executive Branch panel speakers (Aneesh, Macon Phillips, New Media Director of the White House, and the very impressive Todd Park, CTO of US Department of Health and Human Services) more about open data than open source.  Oddly odd. No problem. I can live with that.
  • Someone later noted that the President recently gave a speech at the UN and devoted about 50% of it to asking the world to join in philosophy of openness. Cool. Get the quote. Tag it. Bag it. Put it on our web site.
  • Aneesh described a voluntary industry driven standards process that is market and commercially oriented as the way forward. So be it. This means that the commercial-partnership approach suggested by the OSBR article I reposted here is more critical than ever.    We also need to see as an example of how the US government is rewarding innovation through a competitive marketplace. Is the Sahana Software Foundation prepared to compete seriously in that marketplace? Hmmm…. It’s worth looking into.   I definitely need to spend some time on and see if there is something that we could hit out of the park. I’d be surprised if there is not.
  • Ben Shneiderman of the University of Maryland, a colleague of Louiqa’s suggested that user interface standards are as important as data standards to ensure commonality of user experience across different open source solutions…. We need to check out for more info and support these initiatives. (Is there an idea that is not now a .gov?). Based on a thorough 10-second look at this site, I’m pretty sure there is a ton we can learn and benefit from this initiative. Thanks Ben
  • “Coopetition”: I hadn’t heard this term before, but I understand it’s been around for a bit (since 1913 according to wikipedia). I guess I need to attend more unconferences to keep up on the latest lingo. Love it. Best I’ve heard since “data esperanto” from Pulse Camp.  What about “collabotition?” – even better. But I’m pretty satisfied that we in the Sahana community are all about cooperation and collaboration with our external partners, and coopetition and collabotition only with each other.   Hopefully “civil” continues to be a modifier as well.
  • Recall in 2004, the Office of the Management and Budget (OMB) issued  Memo 04-16 indicating that open source should be considered the same as proprietary software. A good step.
  • A better one came in 2009, when a Department of Defense directive went further to suggest that open source should be preferred and encouraged DOD to participate in open source communities. More tag it bag it material.
  • Gunnar Hellekson of Red Hat and Open Source for America declared victory before citing poor adoption statistics within the USG of open source outside of DOD (who tries everything once, let’s face it), and DOE (with all their scientists).
  • Greg Elin of the FCC noted that the open source community needs to “climb the mountain”….. meaning meet us (govvies) half way by developing hooks into legacy proprietary systems. This will help ease the transition from proprietary to open source. So the message is clear: we should stop complaining about the lack of APIs and make our systems work with legacy systems.
  • One more .gov site to spend some time on:

Funny comment from the GIS break-out session: In explaining the poor resolution of a picture on one of his slides, Jeff Warren of Grassroots Mapping noted: “It used to be a video.  Now it is a PDF.  Sorry.”   That’s how I feel sometimes… it used to be data… now it’s a pdf… but the next word is not “sorry” but something unprintable.  Sorry.

Open Source to the Rescue: Disaster Response and Humanitarian Assistance:

We had a great panel discussion in the afternoon on the use of open source for disasters. Ryan Ozimek, the force behind all of the snowmaggedon sites and the CEO of Joomla kicked it off with a fascinating presentation on the crowdmapping efforts that demonstrated the potential of using such platforms to connect neighbors in mutual assistance (or the occasional snowball fight).

I followed with a great 6.5 minute presentation on Sahana. Check out the slides below.   I don’t know, but I think all of the work on strategic planning is really making our mission and path forward clear… and it is compelling.  (Yes, I know you’ve seen the slides before, it’s the story that goes with it that matters… next time I’ll record a voiceover).

John Crowley then briefed on some of the amazing insights that have come out of the RELIEF/Camp Roberts experimentation process.

Finally, Heather Blanchard of Crisis Commons reviewed the lessons learned from the Haiti earthquake experience (link to her slides)…. I recommend a thorough review of the slides, because there is nothing there that I disagree with.   We need to document these and build on them as learning objectives for our own strategic planning.

The discussion that followed was lively and productive. I should mention Jon Gosier of Ushahidi’s SwiftRiver project was also there… great to meet him and we both talked very positively about the collaboration between Sahana and Ushahidi and OSM on interoperability and using common data standards, and a common humanitarian spatial data model.

I would have liked to have heard more from those from the US State Department, USAID and its Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance…. they were there in the room in force, but outside of the State Department’s Humanitarian Information Unit team, they remained mostly silent. I’m hopeful they returned to their offices Monday to write the appropriately supportive memos to the higher-ups on higher-floors. But some discussion as to how they could support our efforts – not even by using our solutions themselves, but simply by recommended us to governments and local emergency management authorities in the countries affected by disasters as options would serve the stated goal of the Administration to promote open source and open data. Well… maybe they read giist.

So, that’s it from Tech@State. I’m energized again and very glad to have spent the day with a lot of govvies who support open source.

Go forth and do good!!!!


One response to “Musings from Tech@State

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