Nation's First Chief Geek To Crack Government Open

President Obama wants to bring the federal government into the world of 21st-century information technology. Last year, he named Vivek Kundra the nation's first federal chief information officer. Guest host Audie Cornish speaks with Kundra about his efforts to make the federal government more "open source."

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

In Austin, Texas, hundreds of innovators in film, music and technology are gathering at the annual South by Southwest Festival. Coming up, WEEKEND EDITION Sunday host Liane Hansen reports from the festival on some of the new technologies on display there.

But first, I'm joined in the studio by Vivek Kundra. He's the man President Obama has charged with bringing the federal government into the world of 21st century information technology. And he's here to talk about some of those efforts. Vivek Kundra, welcome to the program.

Mr. VIVEK KUNDRA (Federal Chief Information Officer): Audie, thank you very much for having me.

CORNISH: So, you are the federal chief information officer, and that's in the Office of Management and Budget. Are you head of the geek squad? What exactly do you do?

Mr. KUNDRA: So, part of what the CIO is focused on is to leverage the power of technology, as the president has said, to move the government to the 21st century. To make sure that the investments we're making in information technology across the federal government serve the American people.

Why is it that I can go on, whether it's Turbo Tax or Tax Cut and file my taxes and have access to them for the last three years, yet when you go to IRS.gov, you don't have access to that information? Why is it that the student aid application process has been so complicated for so long? It's more complex than filling out the 1040 form. Why is it that it takes over three years to actually file a patent?

And that's what we need to do, is we need to start putting the people who are using these systems at the center, not people who are managing these systems.

CORNISH: You just got back from a visit to the West Coast where you visited companies like Amazon and Apple and Microsoft, and you've talked in the past about how it might be a good idea to use systems or networks run by these companies as opposed to sort of government data centers.

Mr. KUNDRA: Yeah. What we're seeing is massive transformation happen in the private sector where they're consolidating and theyre leveraging technologies such as cloud computing.

CORNISH: So, cloud computing, for a good example for people at home, might be if you use something like a Google program, Google Docs, where your Word documents or your Excel files or whatever you have, you store them with Google. You don't store them in your house on your home computer. Are there any, I guess to start, just privacy concerns in doing business or having the private sector do our business for us?

Mr. KUNDRA: Well, this is not going to happen overnight. This is going to take a decade in terms of this transformation. But we want to make sure that the industry addresses security and privacy concerns. But the U.S. government will not and should not move any system to the cloud that in any way violates national security or the privacy of the American people.

CORNISH: I want to move onto one of the projects you're working on, which is the Open Government Initiative. And what's really interesting about it is this interactive element. And in plain speak, it's the ability of the public to really try and give the government its ideas about how to run things better. So, give two examples that my mom can do at home with her pretty basic home computer setup.

Mr. KUNDRA: Sure. So, she can go online on, let's say, HHS.gov.

CORNISH: Which is Health and Human Services.

Mr. KUNDRA: Health and Human Services. And she can contribute to the public dialogue that's ongoing today to say, hey, what we would like to see is more data around the health care system.

CORNISH: So, is this a comment box or how is it different from what we know already?

Mr. KUNDRA: So, this is the ability to comment, to put in comments. And then what happens is other people are actually able to rate the comment and rank it and give feedback to the agency to say, you know what, we love your mom's idea and we think that idea should be the first one. And what that's going to do is actually inform public policy from an HHS perspective.

CORNISH: So, if one idea, if my mom's idea becomes the most popular of the day, then the odds of it being seen by the HHS are high?

Mr. KUNDRA: Not just high, but part of the directive requires that they incorporate that feedback as they're creating a plan. So, it'll actually have an impact on how the agencies is going to move forward as far as hardwiring this culture of transparency and open government.

Another mechanism in terms of the way people are participating is, let's say, on the tech front, developers. So, we launched a platform called data.gov, which essentially democratizes data for the American people.

CORNISH: So, this is a Web site where you've had all the different agencies, they've been told the data that people have been asking for, you have to put it out there in a raw form that they can download and use and manipulate.

Mr. KUNDRA: Exactly. As soon as we launched data.gov, a developer went online and created an application called FlyOnTime.us that essentially allows anyone to see average flight times across the country, average wait times at airports. So, if you're flying from city A to city B, you can actually plan accordingly or you can book your ticket accordingly.

CORNISH: So, these are government apps.

Mr. KUNDRA: These are apps being developed by third parties. They're not being developed by the government. So, this is part of what the president wants to do. The president wants to be able to engage the American people as we address some of the toughest problems we face.

CORNISH: Vivek Kundra is the federal chief information officer and he joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Mr. Kundra, thanks for coming in.

Mr. KUNDRA: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

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