Cloud computing could pave way for open government

Federal agencies might need cloud computing as a way to meet new mandates to share information with the public, experts say. Meanwhile, the Defense Department falls in line with President Barack Obama's directive for open government.

Cloud computing could play a key role in how federal agencies adhere to new open government requirements from the White House to share information with the public, according to Chris Kemp, the chief information officer at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

The Open Government Directive, released Dec. 8, directs all federal agencies to release at least three high-value datasets to the public in 45 days.

Providing the data and keeping it updated is a natural candidate for cloud computing, Kemp said yesterday at the Digital Government Institute’s Cloud Computing Conference. With cloud computing technology, large amounts of public data can be made available to people inside and outside government.

Cloud technology is the best option for agencies “unless they want to make a special effort to create a separate copy of everything for the public and then try and keep that data in sync,” Kemp said.

Finding ways to share data and make it useful to the public will be an important information technology challenge in the coming years, he added. “As federal agencies we really need to really start thinking about overall enterprise architecture because I think open government has profound implications on federal IT enterprise architecture." 

For example, almost all NASA’s data is designed for a specific scientific use. NASA officials have little idea about how the public might use the information. The information could be mashed with data from another agency in ways not thought of by either agency, Kemp said.

Creating a cloud computing infrastructure to support that kind of mashup would be inexpensive for NASA and beneficial to the public, he said.

“If data becomes popular and people create mashups and really start tapping into that data, the cloud allows you, without a lot of money or infrastructure, to scale and elastically make that infrastructure available,” Kemp said. “We are just creating that platform the public can use that scales so they don’t have to worry about spending all their money creating infrastructure, scalability and availability. The money gets to be spent on making the data useful to the public, and that’s the key.”

Making the move to cloud computing should not be overly difficult for agencies since the technology is actually a progression of other technologies, according to Russ Fromkin, director of Intel Federal. Technologies such as virtualization make up the building blocks of cloud computing, he added.

“The cloud basically brings all these technologies together that we’ve been working on for years and enables us to combine all the different things together,” Fromkin said.

That optimization will enable agencies to get better use from servers and computers, Fromkin said. A server in a typical federal agency data center could have a use rate of 30 percent. Cloud computing could improve that dramatically, he predicted.

“Seventy percent of your servers, theoretically, could be taken off and used for other things if you implement cloud computing,” Fromkin said. “And now your capital expenditure is only 30 percent of the hardware for what you’re doing today.”

DOD falls in line with directive

Meanwhile, the Defense Department will meet the new established requirements for government transparency.

Last week, DOD completed its transition to a new public Web page that replaces as a public portal to access to information related to its activities and other relevant communications. Anchored by a “We Want to Hear from You” section, the home page has several interactive elements, including options to subscribe to the site’s RSS feed, visit the DODLive Blog and check out the social networking pages dedicated to defense organizations.

The site includes an exhaustive index of links to organizations and offices in DOD and the military, which can be cross-referenced by topic and name of organization.

The department is contributing to the governmentwide project with so far nearly 200 links to RSS feeds, news, updates and dispatches from global military commands and services, according to a DOD press release.

The release also said DOD is making information more transparent for the Federal Voting Assistance Program, which facilitates voting in federal elections for service members and other Americans living abroad. According to DOD, information has been posted on the program’s processes for voting from out of the country, as well as raw data about the votes themselves and the feedback on the voting process.