Open Source at the State Department: Loud, timely, not your parents' State Department

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Last Friday, I was in Washington, D.C., for Tech@State’s Open Source Conference . Tech@State is an inspiring step by the State Department, connecting technologists to targeted goals of the U.S. diplomacy and development agenda via networking events as part of Secretary Clinton's 21 st  Century Statecraft initiative . Tech@State   connects leaders, innovators, government personnel, and others to work together on technology solutions to improve the education, health, and welfare of the world's population. To date they have held events on Haiti, Mobile Money, and Civil Society 2.0.

It was my second visit to the United States Department of State. The first time I visited was to attend TED@State , a first-of-its-kind conference bringing great ideas from TEDTalks (this was pre TEDx ) to Washington. Ted@State featured Clay Shirky , Paul Collier, Jacqueline Novogratz , Stewart Brand, and Hans Rosling and the music of Zap Mama .

This time, like the last, I found it was loud; it was timely; and it was not your parents’ State Department. There seemed to be equal excitement on the part of the State Department staff, the organizers, the speakers and the audience, all aware that this was a new kind of hybrid, maybe a new kind of government, and a time for more cross-cutting collaboration and engagement around innovative, impactful ideas, partnerships and initiatives.

Tech@State Open Source was designed to convene those with an interest in government use of open source technologies and those envisioning an “open source future” supporting improvements to the world’s information infrastructure. The conference kicked off with key U.S. government technologists including:

Aneesh Chopra , CTO of The United States, Assistant to the President and Associate Director for Technology within the Office of Science & Technology Policy

Macon Phillips
, the White House New Media Director

Todd Park
, Chief Technology Officer at the Department of Health and Human Services

Greg Elin, the Federal Communication Commission's Chief Data Officer Susan Swart, Chief Information Officer for the Department of State.

Private sector representatives included Chris DiBona of Google, Gunnar Hellekson of Red Hat, and Jeremy Allison of Samba, along with entrepreneurs, academic and nonprofit leaders.

I spoke on the "Open Source Architectures for Health" panel representing the IntraHealth OPEN initiative and OPEN Council, made up of key agents in global health, technology and ICT for Development, or ICT4D. IntraHealth Open is a movement promoting technological fluency, local capacity and innovation in open source and mobile systems for health in the developing world. Working in concert with so many leaders in the field we are able to encourage collaboration, make the most of competition and apply the latest advances and best practices in the field; tailoring solutions to respond to critical needs. The IntraHealth Open goal is to make health systems stronger, make health workers’ jobs easier, and to improve health outcomes using technology and systems that can be customized to meet local need s, building systems that are sustainable, versatile and scalable. We use open source based applications because in our experience they facilitate local capacity building, allow for easier and more frequent customization , sharing and remixing , and keep more investment in local markets.

Luckily these goals, and sometimes the bases of the tools, are shared by many people working in ICT4D across many areas of development including health, education, agriculture, mapping, data collection & visualization and crisis response. Tech@State did a great job of inviting in specialists from many of these areas to come and share their experiences.

Many of our OPEN Council members were attending or presenting as part of the program including Deb Bryant of Open Source Labs , Aman Bhandari of HHS , Eric Gunderson of Development Seed , Matt Berg of The Earth Institute , Jon Gosier of Appfrica , Swift River and Ushahidi , Michael Downey of OpenMRS , all key players in open source ICT4D. Also in attendance were respected colleagues like CrisisCamp/Crisis Commons/Crisis Mappers’ Heather Blanchard , open government activist Dave Eaves , Inveneo Director Wayan Vota , Jhpiego’s Learning Technology Advisor James Bontempo , Deborah Estrin of UCLA, David Haddad of the mHealth Alliance , Will Schmidt, Open Innovations Advisor for USAID’s Office of Science and Technology, and Kaushal Jhalla , Technologist and World Bank blogger. These people and many others in attendance are at the cutting edge of open source technology creating scalable solutions and systems. The field is growing and getting more diverse.

Todd Huffman Chief Scientist, proponent and the driving force behind Sofcoast's efforts to embrace open source and creative openness, was presenting on his very popular beer for data program in Afghanistan. Mari Kuraishi , President and co-founder of GlobalGiving , and former manager of some of the Bank's most innovative projects, including the first ever Innovation and Development Marketplaces, was moderating a panel on Open Models for Social Change: Changing philosophies about development and aid”   and is a major proponent of open source solutions.

It was especially powerful to have Habib Haddad speaking on the very day Mubarak stepped down. Haddad is a tech entrepreneur, founder of , a startup focused on empowering the Arabic language on the web, and founder and CEO of YallaStartup , an organization focused on early stage entrepreneurship in the MENA region. Most recently he co-created Alive In Egypt , an effort to crowdsource transcriptions and translations of voice tweets coming from Egypt. His panel brought home the power and the potential of open source like no other.

This kind of gathering is what I like to see happening in government and I hope it continues. Thanks to Raina Kumra, Paul Swiderman, Noel DIckover, Richard Boly and the rest of the #techatstate team for providing IntraHealth and others with such a great opportunity. Looking forward to my next visit.

I was unable to attend Day Two–an unconference–but I encourage you to follow the above list of participants (names wherever possible are linked to twitter) who have been documenting experiences, building networks and fostering collaboration. Michael Downey created a list of attendees.

And here are a few of my favorite quotes in tweet form from the event:

  • “ When you take free software & do w/it what you please it’s really what you please - the great thing is it can’t be dictated” - @ cdibona #techatstate

  • Todd Huffman just returned from Afghanistan – "Warzones are the least transparent and open places on the planet." #techatstate

  • "Social media lowered the cost of revolution and allowed the geek to do something" - Habib Haddad #techatstate

  • RT @ techATstate : Habib Haddad: "Open mentality: let everyone innovate on your behalf.

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Heather LaGarde launched the IntraHealth OPEN initiative in partnership with Youssou N'Dour and other artists, building a coalition of leaders in global health and technology focused on local leadership and innovation in open source solutions for critical global health issues. She has also worked for War Child and Human Rights Watch.

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