2013 Bold Award and Thoughts on Government Innovation

NextGov Bold Award 2013
Bold Award 2013, awarded for the Imagery to the Crowd initiative

In 2013, the NextGov media organization began the Bold Award, given for innovation in Federal technology. It is an interesting award, as the idea of innovation in the government is usually the punchline of a bad joke.  But the folks at NextGov are on to something, as innovation in the government is actually really difficult. Besides the usual set of restrictions (a stodgy, risk-adverse bureaucracy, broken acquisition processes, and woefully dated information systems), one of the challenges is measuring the impact of an innovation.

In the private sector, a financial metric like Return on Investment (ROI) is a visceral and quantifiable measure of success.  Usually a product is built to fill a gap identified in the market. In order to manage the risk of launching a new product, a protoype is built, beta tested, feedback from the market incorporated, and a revised prototype is built. Wash-Rinse-Repeat till the product makes money, or the underlying assumptions are proven wrong and development stops.

For several reasons the notion that an innovation could be proposed, implemented, measured, iterated, and the team rewarded for success does not translate to government.  First, success is difficult to quantify, let alone tie back to specific actions.  In the context of the HIU, what is the value of informing a policy maker better? How do you measure a good decision? How do you know its a good decision when you can’t know the alternative?  When trying to build something like Imagery to the Crowd or the CyberGIS, how can I measure the impact on foreign policy?  When a decision is ultimately made, it was on the basis of multiple streams of information, how do you determine the value of a single product?  This situation is not unique to government, but the government does introduce some unique dynamics.

Second, there is no incentive to reduce cost. A culture of “we have money at the end of the year” means dollars get spent by years end, often regardless of utility. So if you actually save money, the bureaucracy figures you can do your mission for less and cuts your budget. This is a sentiment that is counter-intuitive at best, criminal at worst.

Third, the broken acquisition systems means that there is no way to fund an agile approach to product development in the government.  Implementations of “minimal viable product” and rapid prototypes are a rare occurrence in the government.  Instead, innovation must follow a procurement process where the innovator has to determine “requirements” (a mind-numbing process), put it out to bid (a mind-numbing process), idea awarded to low ball estimator, it gets built (maybe correctly), and two fiscal years after you started, you have some implementation of your innovative idea (that you have to pay extraordinary costs to the original contractor to change).  Not a recipe for success.

We know government bureaucrats work for the citizens (something I was proud to do), and that they have a duty to reduce costs and increase the quality of services delivered to/for citizens. However, the system is broken when the momentum behind keeping the status quo in place massively overwhelms the need for change.  So what exactly is the motivation for a government employee to be innovative? We know its not money, as innovators are worth significantly more in the private sector. From my experience it comes down to the fact that people care. Yeah, not usually a thought that people use to describe government bureaucrats, but it’s true. There is a tremendous amount of talent and willingness to work hard in the government workforce. The problem is they are shackled, and the cost to be innovative is a personal willingness to put themselves at risk and continually run through bureaucratic walls. As documented by the Washington Post lately, the government is losing the next generation of leaders because of this nonsense.

So back to the idea of awarding innovation in Federal technology. As part of the NextGov inaugural class, I was nominated and awarded a 2013 Bold Award for the Imagery to the Crowd initiative. This was an honor to win, but also disingenuous in that it would not have happened without a crew of people. Those folks at the HIU and elsewhere know who they are and the key role they played.  Gratitude. #oMC.

The 2014 Bold Award winners are listed here

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USGIF Achievement Award

One of the interesting things about the “Imagery to the Crowd” projects has been the positive feedback we have received from a range of different communities. Ultimately we built the process from a belief that free and open geographic data could support the effective provision of humanitarian assistance, and that the power of open source software and organizations were the key to doing this efficiently.

Our goal with Imagery to the Crowd is to provide a catalyst, in the form of commercial high-resolution satellite imagery, to enable the volunteer mapping community to produce data in areas experiencing (or in risk of) a complex emergency. In many ways I thought of this process as trying to link the “cognitive surplus” of the crowd with the purchasing power of the United States Government, to help humanitarian and development organizations harness the power of geography to do what they already do better.

Somewhat surprisingly, a community outside of the humanitarian sector recognized the potential impact of this process, and the HIU was awarded the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) Government Achievement Award 2012 (Press Release, Symposium Daily pdf, Video page). The award was presented at the GeoInt Symposium in Orlando, FL (Oct 7-14 2012). Below is a video of the awards presentation, and includes the Academic and Industry Division winners from this year. The section on the HIU begins around the 7:25 mark.

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At the conference I also was on a panel in a “GeoInt Forward” session focused on open source software. This panel was actually the best part of the conference. Typically the first day of the GeoInt Symposium is reserved for the golf event, but this year the organizers included an additional day of panel sessions. In general these sessions were very well attended, and with a full-house of approximately 250 people the session on Open Source Software exceeded my expectations. The session description and other panelists are listed below, and it is clear the defense and intelligence perspective that is GeoInt, but it was an interesting group doing work across a range of different applications. I tried to provide a bit of balance and discussed the philosphical approach to open source, and its potential as an organizing principle for organizations. The Imagery to the Crowd project is built on an a cloud-hosted open source geographic computing infrastructure, so I could speak to the reality of this system. It seems that the coming budget austerity has generated significant interest in open source, and now could be golden opportunity.

From the conference proceedings:
“Open Source Software (OSS) has moved from being a backroom, developers-only domain to a frontline component inside key military capabilities. OSS isn’t doing everything—yet—but it is slowly commoditizing key strategic parts of geospatial infrastructure, from operating systems to databases to applications. In this session, key government program managers will discuss where and how they see OSS moving to solve warfighter needs, as well as assess the gaps in OSS investment and capabilities.”

Moderator – John Scott, Senior Systems Engineer & Open Tech Lead, RadiantBlue
Panelists
• John Snevely, DCGS Enterprise Steering Group Chair
• Col Stephen Hoogasian, U.S. Air Force, Program Manager, NRO
• Keith Barber, Senior Advisor, Agile Acquisition Strategic Initiative, NGA
• John Marshall, Chief Technology Officer, J2, Joint Staff
• Dan Risacher, Developer Advocate, Office of the Chief Information Officer, DoD
• Josh Campbell, GIS Architect, Office of the Geographer & Global Issues, State Department

Reference Cited:

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Imagery to the Crowd, ICCM 2012

Here is my ignite talk on the “Imagery to the Crowd” project from the International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2012). I’ve attended each of the four ICCM conferences (Cleveland, Boston, Geneva, Washington DC). They have been a great way to understand the organizations that comprise the humanitarian community, and more importantly, meet the individuals who power those organizations. It was exciting to present on our work at the HIU, and contribute back to the Crisis Mapping community.

All of the Ignite talk videos are available at the Crisis Mappers Website (lineup .pdf) and collectively they represent a solid cross-section of the field. At the macro-level, I believe the story continues to be about the integration of these new tools and methodologies into established humanitarian practices. The toolkits are stabilizing (crowdsourcing, structured data collection using SMS, volunteer networks, open geographic data and mapping, social media data mining) and are being adopted by the major humanitarian organizations. While I am partial towards crowdsource mapping, the Digital Humanitarian Network and the UN OCHA Humanitarian eXchange Language (HXL) are two other exciting projects.

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Uganda mapping project

The Humanitarian Information Unit has for the second time worked with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team to deliver high resolution commercial satellite imagery to the crowd. For this project we helped support the American Red Cross with a disaster risk reduction project focused on the citites of Gulu and Lira in northwest Uganda. Details of the project can be found on the Red Cross blog, “We Start With A Good Map” and the recent Red Cross news article “New Mapping Technologies for the Developing World.” One exciting element of this project is that ARC staff are working directly with locals in country on the project and helping to provide additional local knowledge to the map.

The HIU tasked, processed, and served the imagery using its CyberGIS computing infrastructure (more on this coming). The imagery services have been running for a couple weeks and the mapping results are quite stunning. The amount of detail in Gulu surprises me every time I look at it, especially the trees, huts, and buildings. The maps below are interactive and can be used to zoom and pan around the OpenStreetMap data. Details on how to help with the mapping task, or any other mapping task, can be found at the OSM Tasking Server.

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Gulu, Uganda

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Gulu, Uganda 2.773479, 32.304783 Imagery to the Crowd Project: Gulu, Uganda See the OSM Tasking Manager for details: http://tasks.hotosm.org/job/50 Uganda Mapping Project: DisruptiveGeo blog

Lira appears to be a smaller town, with less overall mapping, but the building mapping is equally detailed.

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Lira, Uganda

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Lira, Uganda 2.248187, 32.896156 Imagery to the Crowd Project: Lira, Uganda See the OSM Tasking Manager for more details: http://tasks.hotosm.org/job/51 Uganda Mapping Project: DisruptiveGeo blog

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Imagery to the Crowd…early results

We have been busy reviewing the results of the Camp Roberts / Relief 12-3 mapping experiment for the Horn of Africa. In this phase of the project, the OpenStreetMap (OSM) community was provided short-term access to high resolution commercial satellite imagery over two large collections of refugee camps in Ethiopia (Dollo Ado) and Kenya (Dadaab).  The goal was to map the roads and footpaths in 10 refugee camps, that contain a population over 600,000 people, in 48 hours. A more detailed numerical analysis of the data will follow, but from a qualitative perspective the results are amazing. Below are examples taken from one specific camp, the Bokolmanyo camp in Ethiopia, and links to each of the 10 camps mapped in the experiment.

Bokolmanyo before the mapping experiment
Bokolmanyo refugee camp in the OSM database on 20 May 2012
Bokolmanyo after the mapping experiment
Bokolmanyo refugee camp in the OSM database on 28 May 2012

The ‘Dollo Ado’ refugee camp in Ethiopia is actually composed of 5 individual camps. These camps literally did not exist in OSM before the experiment began. The latest population estimates for the camps report that in total there are 151,972 individuals / 36,721 households living in the Dollo Ado camps (from the UNHCR data portal for the Horn of Africa, and specifically the 22 May 2012 Dollo Ado population statistical report).

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Dollo Ado Refugee Camps

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Bokolmanyo: 4.549560, 41.539478
Melkadida: 4.522779, 41.720324
Kobe: 4.481878, 41.742554
Helawein: 4.368492, 41.861429
Buramino: 4.303960, 41.915073

 

Similarly, the ‘Dadaab’ camp in Kenya is also composed 5 individual camps with a total of 465,334 individuals living there (UNHCR 20 May 2012 Dadaab population statistical report). These camps have been in operation longer than Dollo Ado, and contains 3 times more people. At the beginning of the experiment 3 of these camps had some map data in OSM, however the newer Ifo 2 and Kambioos camps were non-existent. All camps had significant improvements.

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Dadaab Refugee Camps

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Dagahaley: 0.193290, 40.286608
Ifo 2: 0.148573, 40.318623
Ifo: 0.119047, 40.315189
Hagadera: 0.009999, 40.370765
Kambioos: -0.043087, 40.370121

 

These impressive results are due to the hard work of a wide range of people, and I would like to thank several of them: first is the OSM volunteers who donated their time and energy to mapping these camps – you literally helped put 600,000 people on the map; the HIU technology team who went above and beyond in getting the tech stack running; the State Department, Office of the Geographer (Lee Schwartz and Benson Wilder) – USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (Chad Blevins) – USG partners (Katie Baucom and Nat Woolpert) who were key to keeping the process moving; John Crowley for providing constant energy and opening the Camp Roberts venue as a place to work; Kate Chapman and Schuyler Earl from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team for advising on the process and making modifications to the tasking server to accommodate NextView; the UN’s Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) for its early help with image processing and serving.

Let’s hope this is just the beginning. I’ll be posting the results of the numerical analysis here, as well as details on the actual request workflow and technological implementation.

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Imagery to the crowd…phase 1

Over the past year, the Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU) at the U.S. State Department has been working with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) to publish current high-resolution commercial satellite imagery during humanitarian emergencies. The imagery is used to map the affected areas, and provide a common framework for governments and aid agencies to work from. All of the map data is stored in the OpenStreetMap database (http://osm.org ), under a license that ensures the data is freely available and open for a range of uses.

This work began as part of the RELIEF Exercises 11-4 at Camp Roberts in August 2011, and focused primarily on the legal and policy issues associated with sharing imagery. Now with RELIEF Exercise 12-3 happening in DC this week, the project is moving into its first technical implementation. As a proof of concept, the HIU is publishing imagery for the refugee camps in the Horn of Africa, and making the imagery available to the volunteer mapping community. The goal is to produce detailed vector data for the refugee camps, including roads and footpaths in and around the camps. There are tens of thousands of refugees living in these camps who are victims of famine and conflict, and these data can be used to improve planning for humanitarian assistance.

How to help: We are going to open access to the imagery on Monday 21 May 2012. We would like to spend two 24-hour periods tracing the areas of interest, which will include 11 refugee sites. All work will be done through the HOT Tasking Manager (http://tasks.hotosm.org), a microtasking platform that will split up the image tracing into ‘tiles’ that will require approximately 30-45 minutes to map.

Accomplishing this task will require that volunteers become familiar with OpenStreetMap and the basic concepts of mapping. But, don’t worry, there are plenty of resources out there to help. For more information on the OpenStreetMap (OSM) process, see the “Beginning OpenStreetMap Tutorial” available from the LearnOSM website (http://learnOSM.org), specifically Chapters 1,2,3,6. For more information on HOT’s work in Somalia see the HOT Somalia project page, and other HOT related materials on the HOT wiki.

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