If you haven’t heard of 18F, it’s time to get them on your radar. 18F is a digital consultancy in an independent agency, a startup within the General Services Administration (GSA), and a major advocate for open source and open data. I’ve been watching and learning more about this group since shortly after its inception in March 2014.
When I saw Kaitlin Devine on the speaker list for All Things Open (happening in Raleigh, North Carolina October 19-20), I immediately reached out for an interview. Kaitlin is the engineering director as well as a Python developer at 18F. In this interview, she shares a few open source success stories from her time with the agency, open source tools that are helping to break down the silos of open data, and much more.
What are the biggest opportunities for open source and open data in government?
The government is the de facto “keeper of the data” for the entire country. There’s all kinds of useful data on pretty much any topic. The problem is that often, that data is stored in a way that is very difficult to discover and access. In my opinion this is primarily a workflow issue as opposed to a policy issue. Too many datasets exist as documents on a walled-off shared folder somewhere. Even sharing data with another agency is difficult, especially if it’s of substantial size. Most agency networks block file sharing services like Dropbox. So, the opportunities for open data are really endless if we can change the way the government stores, creates, and releases data.
That’s where the open source part comes in. There’s a lot of really interesting open source data projects (like DAT or Jupyter notebooks) that are designed to make data transforms replicable, transparent, and publishable. These have implications in the scientific community as well as government. I think that open source software is going to make it cheaper and easier to share data without needing to build the data warehouses of yore.
For those not familiar with 18F, what does the organization do and what’s the mission?
18F is a startup within government that uses modern software development methodologies, user centered design, and open source software to improve digital service delivery in government. Our mission is to create a government that makes decisions based on user needs, and builds or buys excellent tools and services faster, for less money.
What is your role at 18F and what gets you fired up each day?
I’m the engineering director as well as a Python developer. This part is easy: the people at 18F are amazing. Every single one of them is highly motivated, incredibly smart, and driven to make a lasting impact in government. I am both awed and intimidated by them. Lucky for me, they’re so darn friendly, humble, and a pleasure to work with.
Can you share a few open source success stories during your time at 18F?
One thing that we’ve seen, and I hope to see a lot more of, is local governments adopting software that we’ve written and published. For example, the city of Philadelphia forked and published their own version of our federal analytics dashboard at http://analytics.phila.gov/. I think there is tremendous potential and value if local governments, who usually do not have even a fraction of the IT budget that the federal government has, can reuse our software.
We also recently launched the College Scorecard with the Department of Education. The site allows you to see what kind of earnings graduates have after they leave college, along with several other data points. There’s a lot of different ways you could determine the value of different colleges. By opening up the data behind the site, anyone can do their own analysis, based on the metrics that matter to them. It also makes it easier to reuse our own software. We consistently have an easier time leveraging our own past work, because it’s open, documented, and generally well-tended.
Without giving too much away for your All Things Open talk, what are a few key points you want to deliver?
Open source isn’t just for software. It applies to many things. It’s an excellent tool in government, not just for technological change but cultural change as well.
Any advice for someone new to open source in government?
Keep an eye on govcode.org—it pulls GitHub issues from lots of government repos, and it’s a great place to get started if you want to contribute. Also follow @newgovrepos if you want to see new government repos as they appear on GitHub. Don’t forget that repos aren’t just for code—you can file issues and give feedback on government services even if you don’t code.