The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Dr. Jane Snowdon, chief innovation officer at IBM Federal. Snowdon discussed the Bluemix Federal Challenge—a competition to develop cloud-based applications that use open data—and how cloud computing and open standards are transforming government.
This interview has been edited.
Josh New: Can you introduce the Bluemix Federal Challenge, what it entailed, and what some of the goals of the challenge were?
Jane Snowdon: Many difficult problems exist for great developers using powerful software to tackle. IBM and its ecosystem of partners work on these problems every day through the Smarter Planet initiative. IBM’s federal team is passionate about helping developers and federal employees to create new solutions, which is why we launched the Bluemix Federal Challenge. We provided developers with a no-cost trial access to our Bluemix platform, combined with resources from data.gov, to encourage the rapid development of mobile and web apps that could be built and delivered on the cloud. We are looking for apps that leverage open data and creativity to address real-world problems and enhance forms of citizen engagement. The Bluemix platform provides custom application program interfaces for mobile software development, gamification, and other building blocks that can help turn concepts into great applications.
The challenge was announced on October 7, 2014. Since then developers have been rapidly creating innovative apps utilizing open data sets and IBM’s Bluemix Platform-as-a-Service. Challengers were asked to focus on three areas:
- Connected Park Explorers: We know that smartphones sometime sneak onto hiking trips, but the U.S. Park Service has lots of great data that can make enjoying the great outdoors even more rewarding. Help deliver this information to hikers, cyclists and others enjoying our national parks and help keep visitors informed, safe and alert.
- Rural access to knowledge: Mobile technology is revolutionizing the delivery of information and services to Americans who live outside of major cities, yet we are in the beginning stages of leveraging mobile technologies to improve the lives of rural residents. Imagine what new apps could be built to bring knowledge to rural communities using datasets from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior.
- Safer Society: Help make the United States safer by mashing up weather, hazard, traffic safety, consumer product, or public safety datasets to help the public find critical information to keep us safe and better able to respond in the event of a crisis or natural disaster.
New: How did the challenge turn out? Any notable projects?
Snowdon: Challenge finalists included OnWire Consulting Group, Second Look Technologies, and Shelia Flick Consulting LLC.
OnWire Consulting Group was the overall winner with their ParkRanger app, which is designed to increase a visitor’s safety and experience at state and national parks and to enable park rangers and administrators to use real-time data to make smart decisions.
Second Look Technologies developed an app that calculated location-based risk of contracting Lyme disease.
Shelia Flick Consulting LLC developed the HerFarm app to help women food producers identify and apply for loans and grants. Shelia has continued to expand HerFarm app to also assist minority, veteran, and rural food producers.
New: I’m also interested in learning more about Bluemix generally. How can Bluemix help enhance the federal cloud landscape?
Snowdon: Bluemix is an open-standards, cloud-based platform for developing, managing, and running apps and services of all types (web, mobile, analytics, reporting, and so on) in the cloud. Bluemix delivers enterprise-grade services that can easily integrate with existing cloud applications and on-premise systems of record. Bluemix is an implementation of IBM’s Open Cloud Architecture based on Cloud Foundry—an open source platform as a service.
Bluemix offers developers a catalog of IBM, third party, and open source application program interface services for stitching together an application; development, monitoring, deployment and logging tools; and layered security where IBM secures the platform and infrastructure and provides the tools to secure apps. The Bluemix platform enables Internet of Things services by allowing developers to register and connect networked devices and embedded machine to machine sensors to the cloud, easily aggregating and reacting to data and events in real time. Organizations can build applications to manage, analyze, visualize, and interact with the massive quantities of temporal and spatial data generated by vehicles, wearables, mobile phones, cameras, computers, sensors and other intelligent devices.
New: What are some of the potential outcomes you could see happening from increased federal cloud usage? What sorts of things will become possible that aren’t now?
Snowdon: Policies such as Cloud First, which directs agencies to increasingly rely on cloud solutions, have moved federal agencies in the right direction with website hosting, email migration, and collaboration services as initial steps in migration to the cloud. Federal agencies today are leveraging learnings and best practices from the commercial sector by implementing infrastructure-as-a-service for optimized computing, storage, and networking, platform-as-a-service for rapid application development through a composable and integrated platform for mobile, big data and analytics, security and DevOps; and software-as-a-service for business applications such as records management, document tracking, accounting, supply chain, and talent management.
Federal cloud usage will continue to grow. New citizen services and employee productivity tools and mobile apps will develop in the cloud. Managed cloud services will help federal agencies to control costs. Greater innovation and new solutions will be created to make cloud services more secure. The number of cloud servers is predicted to grow ten-fold worldwide by 2020. With the predictions of one trillion connected objects and devices on the planet generating data in 2015 and 2.5 billion gigabytes of data generated every day, a transformational change is occurring. Large amounts of data are increasingly residing at the edge of the network, the majority of which is sensory data.
New: Relatedly, the promotional materials around the event mention open standards and interoperability. Can you elaborate on your views on these topics and how you expect them to play a role in the cloud in the future?
Snowdon: IBM believes strongly in the concept of open computing. The success and power of the Internet have created business opportunities and societal good that would not have been realized without a strong commitment to open standards. New converging developments in technology—mobile, social and cloud—are creating new opportunities for tremendous growth and value. Just as open standards were critical to the success of the Internet, they must continue to play a critical role for users to reap maximum value from these developments, especially cloud services, which enable most social and mobile applications.
As public sector organizations deploy technologies to share information, implement business processes, and provide new services seamlessly among various departments and with citizens, they should ensure open standards based solutions are preferred in public procurements. Open standards for software interoperability enable the seamless connection of internal and external entities using different technologies. Agencies must be able to share data and applications seamlessly and in real-time in the cloud to solve complex cross-agency challenges.