Sonny Bhagowalia smashes technical, cultural obstacles to sharing government data
The team that developed Data.gov in record time showed that it's possible to be quick and agile in government
Sanjeev “Sonny” Bhagowalia, chief information officer at the Interior Department, answered federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra’s call to the CIO Council to build Data.gov as a public warehouse of raw government data — and do it as quickly as possible. Here’s Bhagowalia's account of how he and his team launched a phenomenon.
I volunteered and said I’d be happy to do my day job but also, on the side, do this collaborative venture. We brought in the General Services Administration, the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Management and Budget.
We gave people a task and made them focus on key deliverables and then kept Vivek in the loop. We had daily 30-minute calls to see how things were going. The communication, focus, commitment and passion that people brought to Data.gov are the reasons for its success.
The idea was to focus exclusively on a small set of requirements and leverage existing acquisitions, such as GSA contracts. In the government, you’d typically wait a year or two to come up with the perfect set of requirements and then do an acquisition. We decided to think in terms of days and weeks, not months and years.
We rolled out our first site on May 21, 2009. That was almost within one and a half, two months, which is unheard of in the government.
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The big challenge was how to take some risks and go out there a little bit and focus on just a few deliverables. Even though we launched the site with only 40-some datasets, you start somewhere, right?
We chose to think small, act small and quick, have a very focused team communicate up and down the chain, and just get things out in a constant fashion and keep it going. There’s power in that concept — kind of like a small college basketball team that suddenly goes a long way in the NCAA tournament. It goes a long way because it has belief, and it's very tied together.
One of the things that helped us was the change in culture. The previous approach was to protect everything and share what you must. Now the focus is to share everything and protect what you must. But culturally a lot of people were still very uncomfortable with releasing all that data.
Also, people say there’s data already out there, so why do we need Data.gov? We wanted to set up a single place for people to go and leverage what already exists in government. We have 24,000 domains in the U.S. government and millions of Web pages. So the idea was to start connecting them and making it easier to find data from all those sites.
Everything we do in our lives is about information and data. I like to say that it’s not about the technology, it’s about the data. And when data is found in context, it becomes information. That whole continuum of data and then information is really where the world is going.
With social media and crowdsourcing, people are putting data together and getting information. They are able to make decisions based on the information.
That’s what drives us and that’s why I chose to work awfully late hours. It’s been very satisfying.
Matthew Weigelt is a former FCW senior writer who covered acquisition and procurement.