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Local technology czar could be headed to Obama administration

In his year and a half in office, District of Columbia technology chief Vivek Kundra has developed a reputation as an innovative, open-minded leader who uses technology to increase the transparency and accountability of government. So it's hardly surprising that Kundra is being considered for a post in the Obama administration, which has promised to use technology to create a more open government.

Democratic insiders have told NextGov that the D.C. official is on the short list of South Asian-Americans being considered for roles within the new administration. The details remain uncertain, but one possible fit for Kundra would be the new federal chief technology officer position that President-elect Barack Obama proposed during his campaign.

Walking through his office in Washington's Judiciary Square, it's easy to see how Kundra earned his reputation. The main work area is set up to resemble the trading floor of a stock exchange; the open seating format encourages collaboration, while monitors attached to the walls provide up-to-date information on all projects currently under way.

"When I got here, they were spending $1 billion on [information technology], but we didn't know where or what it was spent on," Kundra said. To solve that problem, he deployed portfolio management tools that allow him to track every project, from the amount of money spent to the names of the employees involved. By using a stylus on wall-mounted monitors, Kundra is able to access comprehensive data almost immediately. "It used to take hours, now it takes seconds," he said.

Every district IT project is treated as a publicly traded stock, Kundra noted. To that end, he has hired fund managers rather than project managers and made them responsible for ensuring that the "happiness index" for every project remains on the higher end of a 1-10 scale. The index score is calculated using budget and schedule information and a series of news updates from employees.

"It's about holding people accountable," Kundra said. "It changes the conversation...now we can direct more capital from where it's not effective to where it is." He estimated that implementing the stock market approach took about six months, but said the value of integrating so many data sources made the effort worthwhile.

The method has helped Kundra identify and cancel three projects that were failing to meet budget or deadline. Those projects included an electronic report card system for local public schools and a $4 million effort to create an intranet for the D.C. government.

Killing the intranet project allowed Kundra to shift the entire district government to Google Apps, in keeping with plans to deploy cloud computing resources, where software needed to run an application, as well as personal documents associated with that program, are stored on external servers.

"The cloud will do for government what the Internet did in the '90s," he said.

"We're interested in consumer technology for the enterprise," Kundra added. "It's a fundamental change to the way our government operates by moving to the cloud. Rather than owning the infrastructure, we can save millions."

All the local government's training information is available through online videos on Google Apps and district employees have a profile that allows others to see not only their position and what they are working on, but their personal interests and hobbies. DCPedia allows them to create content around any topic they feel is relevant.

Kundra also has used Google Apps to make the D.C. government's procurement information available to the public. Any citizen can find out how the district is spending its money with just a few clicks. Kundra has received more attention for these efforts to reach out to the public than he has for internal measures.

"Why does the government keep information secret? Why not put it all out in the government domain," Kundra said. "[Since arriving] I've made all the government databases public. Every 311 call, every abandoned automobile, who has responded, etc. It provides high-level oversight of the daily tasks of government."

Among the other things, residents can track are how many computers are being sent to public schools, construction permits issued in their neighborhood, or even recent crimes in the area. By putting the district's databases online, the public is given access to the same information as its officials.

Taking the data online was not enough, however. Kundra said he soon asked himself how it could be made more useful. To that end, he created the Apps for Democracy contest, which charged users to create applications that take advantage of the data available from the district's Web site.

The 47 applications that resulted far exceeded Kundra's expectations.

"Apps for Democracy produced more savings for the D.C. government than any other initiative," he said. The applications have a variety of uses; one allows users to see available information on bikes, from online sales ads to the location of bike shops or areas where bikes have recently been reported stolen. Another application designed for iPhones gives users instant information about their physical location, including crime and housing statistics. Another finds the closest metro station and train schedule.

"You democratize the data and challenge the public," Kundra said. "Applications we never imagined were created. It totally changed the way we deploy technology in the D.C. government. We can unearth innovation and talent, and learn how technology can advance the public agenda."

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