Feds' strength may be in providing data, not building apps

Technology chiefs say agencies often can use their limited resources best by channeling accurate and timely information to entrepreneurs.

Federal agencies can often do more to improve public knowledge and safety by providing raw data to private sector mobile app developers than by trying to create the programs themselves, officials told an industry audience Tuesday.

The trick is ensuring that entrepreneurs have access to solid, vetted and timely government data on such issues as housing prices or highway accident rates, said Mark Day, chief technology officer at the Housing and Urban Development Department. This way, their apps will provide the best value to the public.

"In this environment, everyone wants to know certain key things," Day said. "Bank rates, foreclosures in the area, what are the conditions of the local market, rental prices. Much of that is available today in a mobile format . . . It's not so much that the app isn't there. It is [there] because the demand is huge. It's 'do they have the right data that's useful to people?' "

Transportation Department employees also are focusing on making reliable data available to private sector entrepreneurs rather than building apps themselves, said Tim Schmidt, the department's chief technology officer. Some of the department's most useful data, he said, deals with traffic and accident rates on various roads, which can be paired with an emerging industry in smart car sensors that are aware of and react to other vehicles.

"Our role is changing," Schmidt said. "Twenty years ago, the Department of Transportation would probably be thinking about how we can build a national infrastructure, a wireless infrastructure so that all of our cars can talk to the infrastructure and talk to each other. We can never afford that as a federal government these days.

"What we can do," he said, "is to get all the wireless companies to talk to each other and say, 'How do we get a national infrastructure that they can make money off of and how can we help sponsor and promote those integration activities.' "

Day and Schmidt were speaking at a panel discussion on mobile technology in government at the FOSE conference on government technology.

Federal agencies have launched about 70 mobile apps so far and the General Services Administration is leading the Mobile Gov project aimed at establishing best practices for government apps. Other technology leaders -- including federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra and Mobile Gov Director Gwynne Kostin -- also have stressed, though, that the most effective apps likely will come from the private sector using federal data sets published to Data.gov and elsewhere.

During Tuesday's panel, Day compared the government's role in releasing reliable public information to the Securities and Exchange Commission's long-standing involvement in gathering and reporting corporate information.

"They make sure the data is reported on a timely basis and then a huge financial reporting industry exists to take that data and tell us what it means and to tell us what we should invest in," he said. "The government's not doing the interpreting, the government's just making sure the data is authoritative and standard and accurate."

The platform the government uses to release data should vary, depending on the information itself, Day said after the conference.

Kundra has touted Data.gov -- a repository of about 390,000 federally produced data sets launched early in the Obama administration -- as a treasure-trove for app entrepreneurs, but some critics have said the data is too often messily organized or out of date.

Some agencies have opted to post frequently updated data sets -- such as indexes of home prices in different regions -- to their own websites before Data.gov so they can more clearly vouch for currency and authenticity, Day said. Others send frequent updates to Data.gov, he said.

The Transportation Department is considering enabling mobile apps using its data through no-cost contracts, Schmidt said. No-cost contracts are agreements in which a company will develop at its own expense a product using government information and then sell the result to industry, consumers or back to government to recoup its investment and turn a profit.

The department hasn't entered into any no-cost contracts yet, Schmidt said, but officials are discussing the idea with attorneys and acquisition staff.

In some cases, government is being pushed out of the picture entirely because industry has become adept at gathering its own data sets in what, once, would have been a purely government domain, Schmidt said.

INRIX, for example, has launched a number of apps using privately gathered traffic data that rival the government's in accuracy, he said.