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Obama's CIO wants more citizen activity on Web

Vivek Kundra, President Obama's choice for federal chief information officer, wants to spur new industries and government solutions by engaging Americans online.

President Obama's new federal chief information officer has been charged with the daunting task of saving the government money while helping to institute the president's vision for a Web 2.0 government. Vivek Kundra, appointed Thursday to the position that will report to the White House, says he can not only save the government money by embracing Web-based approaches, but potentially spur entirely new waves of economic development.

Vivek Kundra
Washington, D.C.'s "tech czar" Vivek Kundra explaining how cell phones were to work during the presidential inauguration and what technology safety precautions were taken. CBS News

The federal CIO will largely be responsible for coordinating the information technology operations across government agencies. But an additional part of his new job, Kundra told reporters Thursday, is "to ensure the public has access to information, and to rethink the way the public interacts with the government in an information economy."

He said he intends to accomplish all this by embracing off-the-shelf applications, cloud computing, open-source technology, and concepts that encourage citizens to self-organize on the Web.

Kundra said his office is working on launching, a site that would publish vast arrays of government data for public dissemination. Just as the Human Genome Project spurred new industry, other government data holds potential to fundamentally change the economy, he said.

"We need to make sure that's all that data that's not private or restricted for national security reasons be made public," he said.

Besides making data available for citizens, Kundra said, the federal government should be able to host space online where citizens can turn to each other for solutions to social problems, much as they do now on sites like Facebook.

"You've got 140 million (Facebook) users that have been able to organize on issues and problems and create a movement so people can be heard," he said.

Kundra promoted this concept in Washington, D.C., where he has served as the city's chief technology officer since 2007. His office launched the D.C. Digital Public Square, a site that serves as a hub for government information like city crime data, but also provides applications for users to mash up that information on maps, timelines, and in other ways.

Whether it's to serve the public or government employees, Kundra said federal agencies should be embracing off-the-shelf technologies and formats like cloud computing that are ubiquitous in the private sector.

"You don't need to hire consultants to build out all this infrastructure," he said. "You just leverage what's on the cloud itself, yet in the federal government, we don't have a single platform that allows us to do that."

Using off-the-shelf, as well as open-source technologies, Kundra said, could result in significant savings for the federal government, which typically spends about $71 billion in IT purchases.

"One of the biggest ticket items in that $71 billion is the money the federal government spends on contracts, some that, frankly, haven't performed very well, and there haven't been consequences," he said.

Bill Vass, the president of Sun Microsystems Federal, commended Kundra for suggesting the use of open source. Besides resulting in significant savings, Vass said, open-source technology could help the government improve its cybersecurity, reduce procurement time, and keep the government from getting locked into deals with single vendors.

While much has been made of the federal CTO Obama is expected to appoint, Vass said Kundra's role of coordinating IT efforts across government agencies will be just as critical.

"CIO's across agencies each have their own vision of where to go, and some are more successful in some areas than others," he said. "This will give a sort of central direction. There are no big companies with a CIO that doesn't report to the CEO."