Meet the civic hackers who infiltrated federal government - Technical.ly DC

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Dec. 29, 2014 7:29 am

Meet the civic hackers who infiltrated federal government

Here are some of the civic technologists we met during a tour of 18F, the federal government's forward-thinking digital services shop.

Inside the rapidly growing offices of 18F, December 2014.

(Photo by Lalita Clozel, file)

Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested that edtech company Symplicity was charged with criminal wrongdoing. In fact, it was the former CEO of Symplicity, Ariel Friedler, who personally pled guilty to those charges. A section of this story has been updated. We regret the error. (7/16/15, 4:18 p.m.)

These are the civic technologists of 18F, the digital handyman of the federal government nestled inside the General Services Administration building (a big block at 1800 F St. NW).

18F 1

The 18F workspace. (Photo by Lalita Clozel)

"We're building a business inside the federal government."
18F Executive Director Greg Godbout

18F was created in March in the aftermath of the rocky rollout of HealthCare.gov.

Its mission: to help take government agencies out of the digital dumps.

Here are some of the people we bumped into during a recent visit:

  • Greg Boone, who shifted over here from his post as a contractor at the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (a common pitstop among 18F employees). There’s one thing that makes him really proud of the agency: “[We’re] really transparent about what we’re working on, who we’re working with,” he said. After all, he added, “taxpayer dollars are being spent on these things.”
Greg Boone

Greg Boone. (Photo by Lalita Clozel)

The 18F website is entirely open source, and users can check out the agency’s completed and ongoing projects on the website’s dashboard. It not only lists the projects, but it also categorizes them according to their stage of development: discovery, alpha, beta or live. Most of them are in flux, always susceptible to being tweaked here and there by a perfectionist team.

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The dashboard itself got a grade: alpha. Why? Among other issues, said Boone, who’s working on the project, 18F wants to make sure that it is user-friendly and appealing. “Are the colors right? Do the colors make any sense?”

No wonder the team is on a constant lookout for glitches.

The open source website is like a playground for developers. “We’ve actually had people make pull requests to fix our typos,” said Boone. (Like an offending extra letter “o” that was fixed “almost immediately,” he said).

There is, however, one project that’s earned the “live” designation: the dev programs to improve the APIs of government agencies and make them more easily accessible to developers. More than 70 government organizations have signed up for it so far.

  • Eric Mill is a developer who most recently announced the publication of a full list of the 5,300-plus .gov domains in existence. He is also working on developing the Treasury Department’s “My Retirement Account” landing page and a FOIA portal.
Eric Mill

Eric Mill. (Photo by Lalita Clozel)

There is no bigger pet peeve for civic hackers like Mill than hard-to-access resources, lost files and redundant work. “What comes out of FOIA,” he said, “those documents often get lost in the ether.” Mill previously worked for the Sunlight Foundation’s Sunlight Labs, helping develop sites like the Congress API and Scout, which tracks bills as they move through legislatures.

  • Kaitlin Devine, whose presence here is a testament to the GSA’s commitment to create a more transparent government. Devine has worked at 18F since May, but she’d been in contact with the agency well before interviewing for the job.
Kaitlin Devine

Kaitlin Devine. (Photo by Lalita Clozel)

While working at Sunlight, Devine led an effort to collect data on FedBizOpps.gov for a detailed look into the government’s expenses. After she had haggled for months with the GSA to obtain the data, the Sunlight Foundation filed its first FOIA lawsuit in November 2013.

At first GSA placed a $3,165.26 price tag on the FOIA request (“for a few CSV files,” said Devine). She said the agency was partially hamstrung because some of the data was held by a contractor, Symplicity, the former CEO of which, Ariel Friedler, later admitted to conspiring to hack into the systems of its competitors. Symplicity, the company itself, was not charged with wrongdoing.

“The day after we filed the lawsuit, someone hand-delivered USB drives with the data,” she said, with a triumphant smile.

Devine said 18F is key to not only serving as a digital craftsman for other government agencies, but also helping them select the types of services they need more effectively. The idea, she said, is to “change how the government builds, but also how it buys digital services.”

  • And the Captain Kirk behind all this? 18F Executive Director Greg Godbout also seems to apply a hacker’s can-do attitude to the business of running a government agency. “We’re building a business inside the federal government,” he said.
Greg Godbout

Greg Godbout. (Courtesy photo)

Under him 18F — which is “bootstrapped” in the sense that its revenue comes from its clients, the government agencies — has grown from a 15-person shop to a 100-person enterprise between May and December.

Godbout created a more efficient human resources infrastructure — shortening the process of hiring from several months to several weeks, in order to compete with the private sector. “Your software should never be finished, nor should your business process,” he said.

Godbout has also sought to shift the focus on the digital products serviced by agencies from “shareholder-centered design” to “user-centered design.” This involves conducting surveys before implementing a rigid plan of attack, he explained. “Based on user research, we’re going to pivot.”

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