IT services

GSA holds Demo Day for 18F

Since the General Services Administration unveiled the 18F digital incubator project in March, industry and government agencies have been trying to figure out exactly what the program was designed to do.

They got the best view yet during the first 18F Demo Day event at GSA's downtown headquarters at 18th & F Streets, where more than 100 agency and industry officials heard how the program can address a variety of government processes and tech development needs in an increasingly complex, agility-oriented IT world.

A number of the developers and managers working on 18F projects also briefly explained their work in presentations and one-on-one discussions.

GSA officials said the 18F innovation hub can serve as a sounding board for new tech ideas from federal employees, a technical adviser on large and small IT projects, and a specialized service developer.

"Think of it as a three-legged stool," 18F co-founder and lead designer Hillary Hartley said in an interview. She added that the incubator can collaborate with agencies on IT projects, act as a technical consultant before a project begins, help an agency hone its plans before it hands them over to a contractor or assist with client services.

However, officials said 18F's primary strength is its ability to draw together existing government data, processes and ideas, and reshape them into more efficient, streamlined capabilities. David McClure, associate administrator of GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, said 18F focuses on fast-impact projects that can help agencies solve a problem, and its expertise tends to apply to smaller, fleeter projects for which existing data and processes can be molded into a more effective solution in a short turnaround time.

'A different approach'

Employees involved in eight 18F projects explained their efforts in short presentations that showed the breadth of the initiative's work. The projects included the Midas Innovation Platform, FBOpen, API usability testing and the "pizza tracker" app for GSA's System for Award Management.

Presidential Innovation Fellow and 18F co-founder Joe Polastre said the open-source Midas Innovation Platform, developed in partnership with the State Department, facilitates innovation and collaborative work. He described it as a Kickstarter for government employees who want to get involved in special projects. Any agency, office or individual can post projects or tasks online for other federal employees to collaborate on. Polastre added that a software-as-a-service version of the platform could be made available to other government agencies.

18F's first pilot app, FBOpen, is a set of open-source tools to help businesses find opportunities to work with the government. The website is a simple, user-friendly page where small businesses can search for available federal contracts, grants and other opportunities. Since FBOpen was unveiled, 1,750 users have queried it 50,000 times, said Presidential Innovation Fellow Aaron Snow.

18F also evaluates application programming interfaces and websites for government agencies, said Gray Brooks, senior API strategist at GSA. Agencies can call in 18F experts to scrub their websites and APIs for flaws and to give an outside perspective on what works and what doesn't.

In addition, GSA used 18F to make a prototype "pizza tracker" app that would allow vendors to monitor their progress through the complex System for Award Management. Navin Vembar, director of GSA's IT Integrated Award Environment Division, said he turned to 18F for help with the prototype so that the contractor that would build the final version would have a "crystal" idea of what the agency wanted. Vembar said the agile development of the prototype took about 40 hours.

Agencies can also tap 18F for help in honing their IT ideas before they put a contract out for bid.

McClure said he hopes 18F will allow the federal government to keep up with increasingly disruptive changes in technology, development and procurement. "We're trying to show there's a different approach" to more traditional processes and procurement capabilities, he added.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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