The National Broadband Map: A Case Study on Open Innovation for National Policy

Screenshot of one of the National Broadband Maps

A panel discussion about the National Broadband Map was held at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. on October 15th, 2012 (Case Study report here).  The discussion was also webcasted.  Panel members included:

  • Michael Byrne, GIO for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC);
  • Zach Bastian, a recent JD graduate who wrote the Case Study report;
  • Haley Van Dyck, lead of the Digital Government Strategy, and e-government policy analyst for the Office of Management and Budget;
  • Greg Elin, Chief Data Officer at the FCC;
  • Ben Balter, Presidential Innovation Fellow who recently wrote Towards a More Agile Government; and
  • Dr. Sean Gorman, Chief Strategist for ESRI’s DC Development Center.

The gist of the presentation was to highlight how well the broadband initiative worked.  It is, as Zach Bastian put it, “the poster child for government and IT collaboration.”  He also highlighted four main wins that developed from this project.

  1. Incredible savings (specifics seen in the report).
  2. Agile development, which is an iterative process.  Features were added as needed instead of the usual governmental “waterfall” methodology where all specs are listed in advance.
  3. Open data, participation (i.e. speed testing by citizens, using mobile applications provided by FCC), transparency, and collaboration by NTIA, states, and internet providers, as well as NSGIC.  Open data provided an “Aha!” moment because even though the government had to give up a bit of control, it meant that their systems, points, and work spread much faster than they could have imagined.
  4. Tangible effect on policy.  This was projected helped to address the digital divide.

After this introduction, the panel was asked a series of questions.  The first question, “What can government do to help modernize?” lead to some great insights:

  • *Build tools to accomplish culture change.  You can’t just tell people about change, you need to provide the tools to do so.
  • *Lead by example.  Seeing others having impact, success leads to more people joining in.
  • *Hire people with new mindsets.
  • *Encourage risk to learn from failure, even in government.
  • *Innovation change is hard and trying to think its easy makes it harder.
  • *Find opportunities to move 1 or 2 people to do things differently. Even small numbers is good.
  • *“Everyone has to learn to swim for themselves” –Greg Elin.  Meaning that you may have to explain and help each person climb on board with these new ideas.  Be patient!  Along these lines, famous physicist Max Planck’s famous quote, “Truth never triumphs—its opponents just die out.  Science advances one funeral at a time,” was recalled.

In addition to these points, the National Broadband Map serves as a great example of how data can come alive for people when attention is paid to design as well as factually correct information.  With such a combination, the realization of peoples’ ideas can be very powerful.


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