Interview conducted by Lyndon Dacuan
We recently interviewed Onvia’s Vice President of Content, Henry Chou, upon his return from the 2014 Code for America Summit. He came back excited to share his experience and how Onvia plans to participate in the open data movement. According to their website, “Code for America believes government can work for the people, by the people in the 21st century.” The non-profit organization aims to “build open source technology and organize a network of people dedicated to making government spaces simple, effective, and easy to us.”
We encourage you to take a look at the transcript from the interview below and watch the 2 minute video featuring a few key highlights from our interview with Chou. In a couple of months we’ll follow up with Chou and fill you in with Onvia’s progress working with Code for America and other exciting #opendata news.
Q: Henry, how are you doing today?
A: I’m doing good, thanks.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about Onvia and what you do there?
A: Yes. Onvia is a company that really helps businesses do more business with the government. I’ve been with the company for five years and currently head up our content operations team. What that entails is making sure we collect all the [government procurement] content, bring it in house, normalize and aggregate thousands of agency documents and then publish the refined, standardized data to our database.
Q: You recently attended the Code for America Summit. What was covered in that conference and how did it go?
A: Yes, that was in San Francisco. If you’re not familiar with Code for America they are a non-profit that started about four years ago and their mission is really about how to make government work better for the people. I was down there primarily to learn about what new technologies are out on the horizon as well as learn more about open data which was one of the big topics in conversations there.
Q: What has Code for America done around government procurement?
A: Procurement was actually a pretty big topic at [the] Code for America [Summit]. One of the things they talked about is some of the problems with the way government IT procurement actually happens. Some of the things that we talked about are that it’s [IT procurement] primarily done through a waterfall type method today, not taking an advantage of a lot of agile methods that a lot of start-ups use. Also, the current procurement processes require the outcome to be pretty well defined and that doesn’t really work well with some of the newer projects that agencies want to get started with and so there was quite a bit of conversation around that.
Q: What are some of the current challenges around government IT procurement specifically? For example, are smaller vendors able to successfully compete and win these IT contracts?
A: The short answer is that the current processes really favor a lot of the incumbents and larger companies. So, how do we reform that, right? How do you allow start-ups and other smaller firms to get in there and help create some of these innovative applications that will make government work better for the people?
Q: What are some of the problems that applications coming out of Code for America’s programs are trying to solve?
A: Some of the problems of government that they [Code for America] are trying to fix are areas where there’s a lot of inadequate access to different applications - that they don’t work very well or they don’t work very well on mobile. An example we discussed was the way that you apply for food stamps in California. It’s a 20-plus step process and through the use of technology we can make it work so much better. If we take the customers point of view and think of how someone would do this application we could maybe cut the number of steps from 20 to down to four or five.
Q: Could you provide a few more examples of cool discussions that went on during the conference?
A: In terms of what Onvia was interested in, open data was absolutely one of the topics that was talked about. What open data is, if you’re not familiar, is the trend towards agencies putting all kinds of [public] data online for companies to use, for example: health data, transit data, property data and restaurant data. Who knows what kinds of things start-ups can come up with to make use of that! An example of that would be OneBusAway here in Seattle which uses transit data and makes it easier for people to figure out when the next bus is going to show up at their stop. They [Code for America] want to enable a lot of this type of content and just put it out there so that civic hackers and start-ups can take it and do something with it.
Q: With Onvia’s expertise in government procurement data what are some of the ways that you see Onvia participating with Code for America?
A: Onvia deals with a lot of procurement data; we’re dealing with the solicitations as well as the contracts. Right now there is not enough transparency and visibility into a lot of that stuff; agencies are not putting that stuff out in the open. One way that Onvia can help with that is we can help set some of the standards for how some of that data can be published so that once we collect more of the data it’s easier to compare. [For example,] [j]ust because Chicago may put their data online and New York might put their data online it may not be very easy to compare the results of that data. That’s where Onvia can really come in and help with our knowledge of the procurement space, to help them set the right data standards. So, if you’re going to put contract data out online this is what it should look like in order to make it most useable for everyone.
Q: Can you share a little more about the procurement data standards and the programs that Code for America has in place to tackle procurement data challenges?
A: Yes. We are still in the early days of data standards. They have a project called the Open Procurement Project and we are starting to engage with some of the main folks with Code for America. I think they are working with the City of Oakland initially as a pilot to figure out how that might work. It’s a great time for Onvia to start getting plugged into that conversation.
Q: Can you share a bit about how Code for America is working with local governments?
A: One of the key things that they do is they select a number of cities every year for fellowships. A [selected] city pays for a Code for America team to come to that city, analyze the city’s problem and work on solutions. It’s a big commitment on the city’s part to say, “Hey, we would like to spend some money on the development of technology and make some of our applications work better for our citizens.” It’s really a different model than the way government typically procures. Typically they write up an RFP and say, “This is exactly what we want,” and then put it out for bid and companies bid on that. But Code for America is really turning that on its head by saying, “We just know that it can work better.” When their team comes in they will figure out how to make it work better.
Q: Code for America sponsors a few different types of programs. Did you learn about any of those at the summit?
A: They also have fellowships and accelerator programs. The CFA accelerator program is focused on start-ups that are somehow related to civic technologies. An example of that is SmartProcure; they pull purchase orders from all government agencies and they were part of Code for America’s accelerator. So they [accelerator start-ups] get some money, they get some mentoring and it helps these companies gain more business traction faster. They also help sponsor these things called brigades, which is basically a volunteer organization. Brigades sponsor hackathons and events where volunteer organizations can come help out and develop applications to help different city government services work better.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the advantages of governments going open source and what that might do to make things more efficient in procurement?
A: Open source is something that traditionally governments have stayed away from; maybe because of concerns around licensing, that sort of thing. But I think it makes a lot of sense, when you are thinking about different projects, to consider an open source option because whatever you are developing can then be leveraged more broadly. So, let’s say if I’m the City of Seattle and I’m building something within an open source environment, the City of Tacoma may also need something similar. They can then pretty quickly take advantage of that as well. I think it makes sense for governments to explore some of those newer ways of doing things. That wasn’t specifically talked about [at the summit] but it’s something that they [governments] should be thinking about.
Q: Can you speak to the advantages of open data and agile development in government?
A: As I mentioned before I think a lot of the procurement processes are set up to be more of a waterfall method where all of the requirements are defined upfront. But as we know, most technology start-ups today build things in more of an agile format. For example, if you are given so many requirements upfront it may take you a few years to build it and by release there are aspects that are already outdated. It’s just not the way these things are built today, most build applications in more of an agile format that allows us to make sure that the customer requirements are captured more properly.
Q: So it sounds like there is a lot of unstructured procurement data, how does that unstructured data affect Onvia?
A: That unstructured data definitely affects us. What we primarily publish today is what is available in the public domain and that data comes in all different types of formats as well. One of the key things that we do is we try to add some standardization and normalization to that data, allowing it to be turned into intelligence. It’s really valuable to our clients for us to provide them that level of ability to compare that data.
Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share from you experience at the summit?
A: I think it’s just fun being down in the Bay Area. I think the culture down there, in terms of the start-up culture was amazing. To see the level of emotion and passion that people have in wanting to make government work better was just great to see because I think not everyone there had a commercial interest, a lot of people there were just wanting to make sure that the citizens that are relying on government services are able to get better service from our tax dollars. So, that was just good to see - that there are folks interested in making things better.
Q: We look forward to seeing more from Onvia working with CFA! Do you think we can talk in a few months and see how the progress is coming along?
A: Absolutely! As I mentioned we’re still just getting started. I would love to have a conversation in the near future to give you an update on how things are progressing.
Q: That’s exciting! Thanks for speaking with us today.
A: Thank you!