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'Baddest' innovation fellow goes to GitHub

Ben Balter

Fresh off success with the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, Ben Balter has found a new gig. (Photo courtesy of Ben Balter)

He’s been called the "baddest of the badass innovators" by federal CTO Todd Park, and after a successful six months as a Presidential Innovation fellow, Ben Balter is taking a job with the open software collaboration platform GitHub.

GitHub announced the move March 6, two days after Balter’s first day on the job, which will entail government outreach and helping spur the federal government’s adoption and promotion of open source code and collaboration in the open-source community.

Github’s description was more succinct: Balter will help "government to do all sorts of governmenty things well, more awesomely."

Balter, who will remain in the Washington, D.C. area, said the federal government is shifting from casual user of open source tools to "an active participant," and said part of his job will be to help continue that expansion.

"We’re just now seeing this second phase in open source in which the government is not only using open source and producing code, but actually being an active participant in the open source community," said Balter, citing efforts by agencies like the Federal Communications Commission and the White House.

NASA and the General Services Administration have also turned to GitHub to share code, promoting an open data environment where code is reused and repurposed by a slew of collaborators, leading to improved products, increased sharing and a more effective use of taxpayer dollars. As an example, the White House recently held a Hackathon to gather ideas from the open-source community to improve the application programming interface (API) that drives the We the People petitioning system, leading to several new tools.

"Joe Citizen can see a problem, he can submit a proposed code change, and the White House can merge that in," Balter said. "All of a sudden, Joe Citizen’s code is running on a White House program."

Though only 26, Balter boasts a resume full of government and open-data experience that is combined with infectious enthusiasm.

Before joining the first class of innovation fellows, Balter was a fellow in the Office of the U.S. CIO in the Executive Office of the President, where he played a key role in drafting the Digital Government Strategy. He also served on the White House Software Automation and Technology Team, which helps automate tasks, streamline processes and optimize data formatting.

Then in the PIF program, Balter worked with fellow fellows Kara DeFrias, Phil Ashlock, Danny Chapman and Greg Gershman to create Project MyUSA, a streamlined online system that makes it easier for people to access governmentwide information and services.

At GitHub, Balter said he is optimistic the "crowdsourcing and cleaning up of code" will grow, fostering an exchange of information that helps citizens and government truly understand government data better.

"If you put this information on something like GitHub, you can get a collaborative process," Balter said. "You get conversations that don’t just happen between the government and citizens, but between citizens themselves. We want to build a community around that data, rather than the government just broadcasting it."

The future could be fun, too.

Balter said he envisions polices and bills beginning one day as GitHub repositories, where even minute changes are transparent to the masses in a collaborative Democracy, just as a GitHub user can view the evolution of a code over time right now.

On that basis, "A lobbyist with a briefcase full of money is on an equal playing field with the 18-year-old sitting in her high school civics class," Balter said.

Balter appears ready to help bring the government and open source community closer, but he said the bottom line is that there is a community of intelligent people out there willing and able to help the government do things better.

"When government does things better and smarter, we all benefit," Balter said. "It’s about making it easier to work together than apart."

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