Glenmont to Farragut North

Beautiful, sad, newspaper, phone
Looking down, looking around, tall, short, fat
Hurting inside, motivated, exhausted, music
Glasses, hat, old, new, style, healthy, loving
Depressed, arms open, arms crossed
Friends bump into eachother and hug
Guy with a ponytail stares mindlessly at his phone
Girl with sad eyes daydreams

Launching Your State Digital Service

A Digital Service team with a one or two year “digital tour of duty” model  is a way for the top engineers, designers and product managers in your city or state to work full-time on the civic tech problems that make a difference for your citizens.

Most of the best tech talent in your State is not working for the Government.  They have probably never considered a career in public service or have no idea where to plugin.  A Digital Service creates that pathway.

The United States Digital Service

The U.S. Digital Service was founded in 2014.  Technologists from around the country move to Washington, D.C. for a one or two year term.  Most of the 180 or so USDSers are assigned to an agency like HHS, DHS, DoD or the VA.  Some work on longer-term projects at a single agency and others will work on many varying projects across multiple agencies.  The USDS is paid for out of a part of the OMB budget called ITOR.  Because the USDS has found technology solutions that save millions of dollars and executed on projects yielding very positive results for the American people, their funding and work continues.

Setting up your State Digital Service

In a State Digital Service model, the keys are funding and air cover.  It needs support from the top, either from the Governor or Mayor.  A big decision that needs to be made is where the Digital Service lives in your State’s Government structure.  Often, the initial thinking is for the Digital Service to report into the Office of Information Technology (OIT) because “it’s a technology thing”.  If OIT works across agencies and has great leadership, this could work well.  If not, your Digital Service could simply be viewed as staff augmentation and likely will fail.

You’ll need a charter, funding and the first cohort of awesome designers, engineers and product managers from your State ready to serve.  If the right structure is put in place, the talent in your region will seek out opportunities to be involved.

Once you’re setup and have your inaugural team on board, now the real work begins.  Picking the right projects is key.

The Work

In my year with the U.S. Digital Service I have seen a few scenarios where our USDS team was uniquely positioned to make a big impact.

Cross-team Projects

At CMS, the Blue Button 2.0 project required many different teams align on a shared product vision.  As anyone that has worked in a large enterprise knows, this is very complicated and hard to pull off in the best of circumstances.  Because the USDS had the air cover from CMS leadership, we were able to recommend and execute on a path forward that brought together several teams across divisions within CMS and shipped Blue Button 2.0 within a few months.

Procurement

The USDS brings great engineers to the table alongside an agency team to assist with procurement process and technology decisions.  The USDS helped design an Agile BPA and various processes to evaluate vendor proposals that included submitting code samples to Github and more.  This is such an important part of the success of USDS, the team even has a nickname, the Procuremenati!

Design Sprints

A design sprint is a process in which a small, cross-discipline team goes really deep on a problem for a short amount of time, typically 2-4 weeks (Ex: Defense Digital Service design sprint).  The nimble structure of a Digital Service team uniquely positions it for this type of work whereas normal agency constraints may hinder a successful design sprint.

Is your State ready?

To drive innovation, find new sources of talent and generally improve the quality of the software they are building for their citizens, State and Local Governments leverage many types of structures such as University Partnerships, Bloomberg I-Team Grants, Code for America and 18F, and more.  In my home state of Colorado for example, there’s a thriving open data challenge called Go Code Colorado, a Code for Denver brigade, over 1,300 datasets in the Open Colorado data portal and learnings from work with Code for America and more.  This is the type of CivicTech energy you want as you ready for your State’s Digital Service.  It shows a strong demand to engage in Government from your local tech community.

Each team begins differently.  The US Digital Service was born out of the technical problems during the launch of healthcare.gov and is four years old now.  The Canadian Digital Service launched less than a year ago and has added GovTech leaders like Aaron Snow to the team.  The UK Digital Service began in 2010 out of a “Digital by Default” mandate and has paved the way for other Digital Service teams.

Summary

The Digital Service magic happens when you combine the private sector design, engineering, and product management talent with Government talent that has the policy knowledge, deep subject matter expertise and understands how to navigate bureaucracy.

More Reading…

Digital Service Teams

Working alongside Digital Service Teams

Playbooks and Reports

Articles

CivicTech in Colorado

Screencasts for Product Managers

Screencasts are easy to build and a great way to convey information.  As a Product Manager, being awesome at communication is a big part of your job.  Can you tell a great story to customers?  Are you articulating the product roadmap to your company?

I have used screencasts to:

  • Demo a “Getting Started” experience on the website
  • Show off the product at a conference booth
  • Give product updates at Board Meetings
  • Describe the customer journey for a new product to team members
  • Help sales reps communicate with beta customers
  • Announce new product features on blog posts
My setup is:
My workflow to build a screencast is:
  1. Open Byword, type out a 1/2 page script (5 min)
  2. Grab scrap paper and pen, sketch a storyboard of the screencast (2 min)
  3. Plugin USB mic, open Quicktime Player and record the audio a few times to get the pace and tone of your voice sounding right (5 min)
  4. Open Screenflow, import the audio track. (1 min)
  5. In Screenflow, click record and capture video of your screen following along with the storyboard you sketched.  Do this a few times to get it perfect.  (5 min)
  6. In Screenflow, edit your screencast adding call outs, transitions and titles. (15 min)
  7. In Vimeo, go to Create / Music Store and search for an instrumental background track.  One you find one, download it and import into Screenflow.  Adjust volume levels of your voice track and the instrumental track. (10 min)
  8. Export your screencast to Vimeo (2 min)

Total time: 45 min

Tips

In Vimeo, there are a few helpful settings under “Privacy”:
  • password protect your video to share with a select group of people
  • set “where can this video be embedded” to “only on sites I choose” if you only want the video available within your app for example

I’ve used my iPhone to record a few seconds of people around the office, people in front of a whiteboard or monitor, etc.   If you are building a screencast to tell a customer story this can work well.  Plug your iPhone into your laptop and import the clip into Screenflow.

Examples

Further Reading

2017 Reading List: Skiing, Politics and Healthcare

2017 began with a week in the backcountry of British Columbia earning my turns and appreciating the simplicity of a ski skin track, good conversation and warm food.

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Although I knew that my family and I would be moving to Washington, D.C. later in the year, my head was filled with ideas on Ski Towns and the Ski Industry.  I spent some time bouncing around the updated Venture Deals book by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson, a fantastic read and good book for the office bookshelf.  I also really enjoyed reading Ski, Inc by Chris Diamond and gave a few copies to friends.  Ski industry history is full of stories about the intersection of business, the love of skiing and environmentalism.

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As the year continued on, like many people, I was still trying to get my head around the election.  I had seen the Trump/Pence signs in a few places in Ohio, but never in Colorado or anywhere else I had traveled (mostly cities and CO ski towns).  I loved reading Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance because it made me think hard about the thought-bubbles and divides we have in our country.  Of all the books I read this year, I recommended or referenced this one the most in casual conversation.

June in Colorado means it’s Bluegrass Festival time, so I picked up a few “beach reads”. Shattered: Inside Hilary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Giant of the Senate by Al Franken were both easy, lighthearted reads that I  enjoyed while listening to music in the sunshine of Telluride.
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As my family packed up our house and headed to Washington, D.C. for our year-long adventure, I wanted to understand more about Washington.  I have never worked with or around Think Tanks or Lobbyists and grew interested in understanding on a deeper level how these firms play into politics and policy decisions.  The Fifth Estate by James McGann took me a bit to get through, more like a project I was tackling versus a hangout on the couch read.  I took notes, built twitter lists and went down serious research rabbit holes while reading this one.

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One of the best parts of working at the United States Digital Service is spending time in the Executive Office Building, learning from the White House staff and working hard to build software within the walls of an Agency, which for me is HHS.  The USDS has a Chief of Staff and I’ve always been interested in this role which led me to The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple.  Each chapter describes a different Chief of Staff or Presidency so it’s easy to pickup and put down.   I learned a lot about Cheney, the hub-n-spoke model some Presidents like Carter used and a few other players and key moments in history.  It was fun reading about Denis McDonough and healthcare.gov as it was the genesis for the USDS.

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As many Product Managers working in healthcare do, I am always reading at least one healthcare policy book.  Ezekiel Emanuel was deeply involved in the ACA work and his other healthcare books are also excellent. Prescription for the Future: The Twelve Transformational Practices of Highly Effective Medical Organizations by Ezekiel Emanuel is full of examples, ideas and charts to help you understand innovations of healthcare policy such as ACOs.

In the fall, I enjoyed books that tugged at the heart strings.  One of the cool things about D.C is the access to authors and book signings thanks to independent bookstores like Politics & Prose.  I had a chance to listen to and meet Mitch Album, Ted Koppel, Chris Matthews, Al Franken, Atul Gawande and others this year.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanith is a shorter read that makes you appreciate each day that you live life as a healthy person.   My wife and I read this one together and it prompted thoughtful discussions about life and cancer.

Promise Me Dad by Joe Biden had me in tears a few times.  Like many Americans, I love Joe Biden and enjoyed reading about his day-to-day at the White House and stories of time spent comforting families.

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My year ended with Bobby Kennedy, a Raging Spirit by Chris Matthews.  I’m a Hardball fan and have grown to really like Chris Matthews over the past year.  I didn’t know very much about Bobby Kennedy and loved this book.  I would read a chapter and then watch a black and white YouTube video of a speech the chapter referenced such as Bobby delivering the Ripple of Hope speech in South Africa.   I learned a ton about American history and had some fascinating conversations with family members that remember Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and other moments of his time in politics like it was yesterday.  I highly recommend this one.

Reading lists are a fun way to reflect on the year that was.  I’m looking forward to seeing what 2018 brings.  I just picked up my first fiction read in a few years, maybe that’s a sign that I need a mental escape to begin the year 😉

I’m Joining the U.S. Digital Service

I have never been particularly interested in Government, Civic Tech and Politics with the exception of reading the Sunday NY Times, watching Meet the Press occasionally and being somewhat interested in the Open Data movement.

A year ago I had a conversation with Susannah Fox about AI, Healthcare and Aneesh Chopra’s book “The Innovative State“. I was inspired and began digging deeper into the intersection of Government and Technology. I learned about 18F, Cloud.gov and played around with datasets from data.gov. I watched hearings on the OPEN Data Act and subscribed to newsletters from Think Tanks like the Center for Data Innovation.

As it turns out, there’s an incredible amount of innovation and goodness happening in Government today from the use of open source to data transparency to progressive tech policy.

Susannah connected me with the US Digital Service, a group of Engineers, Designers, Product Managers and Digital Policy Experts that work across the Departments of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Defense, Education, Health and Human Services, and the Small Business Administration to improve websites, access to datasets, user experiences and more. It sounded awesome and I decided to give it a go.

An election, a hiring freeze, a few background checks and many interviews later, I was accepted into the program. My wife, kids and I are relocating from Denver, CO to Washington, D.C. for a year long “tour of duty”.

Learn more about the US Digital Service and how you can join!

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Keep Reading:

How Product Managers Can Mess Around With Open Datasets

Most Cities, States and Federal Agencies are working on some type of Open Data initiatives. The most common is an “Open Data Portal” that makes it easy to grab and use datasets:

https://data.cincinnati-oh.gov/
https://data.colorado.gov/
https://data.commerce.gov/
https://www.data.gov/

Some cities are using Open Data to publish performance metrics like the Seattle Police Department or Louisville’s LouieStat.

Civic Leaders working on these initiatives cite promoting transparency in Government, improving performance and providing data for innovation as reasons why Open Data is so important.

As a Product Manager, it’s helpful to be familiar with what’s out there and how you can play around with these datasets to better understand how your product may benefit.

Before you dive into querying APIs, checkout a few of these projects to see the end result of building something with Open Data.

USAFacts
CollegeScorecard
500 Cities Project
Data.gov

Ok, now let’s dig into some datasets you can play with.

Socrata’s Open Data Network
Socrata hosts over one hundred different data catalogs for governments, non-profits, and NGOs around the world. Checkout their Open Data Network where you can search for datasets.

For example, here’s a page about San Bernardino County Employment. Click “View API” to end up on a page giving you data and an API call you can paste into your browser or Postman.

Namara
Namara has organized a bunch of public datasets into a beautiful UI. Create a free account, sign in, create a new project then click Open Data in the left column to search and add datasets to your project. You can view the table data and manipulate it or call the data using their API.

https://api.namara.io/v0/data_sets/{DATA_SET_ID}/data/{VERSION_ID}?api_key={YOUR_API_KEY}

In your project settings, you can generate an API key. Then, in each dataset you can click “API Info” and get the data_set_id and version_id.

ProPublica
You can use ProPublica to request data about Congress such as a list of Recent Bills and Member Voting records.

https://propublica.github.io/congress-api-docs/#congress-api-documentation

You’ll need to request an API key by emailing apihelp@propublica.org then pass that in the X-API-KEY header.

For example, to query Rep. Jared Polis’s voting record:
https://api.propublica.org/congress/v1/members/P000598/votes.json

Open Data and the big IaaS Platforms

Another approach is to checkout Public Datasets baked into AWS, Google Cloud Platform and IBM Bluemix.

This is a great example of using Google BigQuery on NYC Public Datasets.

AWS hosts a bunch of Open Data in S3 buckets.

IBM, as part of the NOAA Big Data Project, has built an easy way to download tons of data.

Additional Reading

A few hashags to search around on are #govtech, #opendata, #opengovdataand #opengov. Follow people like @Josh_A_New, @JoshData, @DataInnovation, and the @SunFoundation.

Here are a few links related to Open Data policy and relevant news.

Some history on U.S. Federal Open Data Policy

DATA Act passed in 2014, America’s first open data law. It directs the federal government to transform all spending information into open data.

Conversation on the future of Open Data as Administrations change and the Preserving Government Data Act of 2017

The OPEN Government Data Act “directs all federal agencies to publish their information as machine-readable data, using searchable, open formats and requires every agency to maintain a centralized Enterprise Data Inventory that lists all data sets, and also mandates a centralized inventory for the whole government (data.gov)”.

Open Data 500 US is an interesting survey results showing what kinds of companies use which agencies’ data.

What I Want To See From Evernote in 2017

I have almost all of my strategic thinking, articles I’ve found useful and reference material in Evernote. Their browser extension works great as does their Mac, iPad and iPhone apps. I even have the WSJ integration enabled so I see relevant news with my Notes.

It’s time for Evernote to not only store my information, but really help me be smarter and better at everything I do.

I would happily opt-in to this feature giving them access to learn from my personal data as long as I had a mechanism to “mark Notes private” which would exclude them from Evernote’s Machine Learning activity.

Given a seed list of Notes or a Notebook, I want Evernote to help me:

  • Monitor important news and activity from Companies and People I’m interested in
  • Show me correlations and visualizations in my Note data so I can better connect the dots and broaden my context
  • Suggest actions I should take based on my Note data

Evernote knows the Companies, People and Topics I’m interested in. Their browser extension could contrast my browsing behavior and work style with what I save into Evernote to learn more about me. They know my travel habits based on where I save Notes and all of the travel data I store in Evernote. They know about my kid’s activities because of the receipts I save, they know the gift idea list I’m keep for my upcoming 15th wedding anniversary.

Example:
I want to build a list of Venture firms funding healthcare companies. I know that Mattermark and CB Insights have these by segment, but I want my own list and to apply my own logic. I want to understand all the people that work there and what they are talking about. I want to know about their investments. I want to know when people leave the companies. I want to dig deeper and see trends using visualizations, etc.

I have been to the Evernote conferences, think Phil Libin was a visionary leader (#selfie) there and continue to be a paid user of the product. I’m hoping 2017 is the year that the Evernote team blows my doors off.