Takeaways from GSA Blockchain, AI, and Open Data Workshop


Takeaways from GSA Blockchain, AI, and Open Data Workshop

By Adam Karides

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a collaborative workshop hosted by the General Services Administration (GSA) to draft national goals for its Emerging Citizen Technology program. In particular, the ‘Emerging Technology and Open Data for a More Open Government’ event focused on how the federal government can leverage and adopt blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), and open data as part of the White House’s Open Government Initiative. The workshop was the first instance of a private-public sector discussion of these groundbreaking technologies, taking place soon after the government first publicly acknowledged its interest in blockchain. The Open Government Initiative was established by President Obama and aims to foster government transparency and greater private sector participation and collaboration with the government. This particular set of goals will comprise its fourth National Action Plan (NAP) and hopes to influence policies promulgated by the other 74 participating countries of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) to promote these tenets on an international level. After recently attending the TandemNSI government blockchain forum on behalf of SensisChallenges, I was invited to participate in the workshop and work alongside leading subject matter experts from the federal government, private enterprises, nonprofits, and academia. After digesting the cornucopia of ideas that surfaced from the workshop, I want to echo some overarching themes of how the government could use these emerging technologies. Read my observations below:

1. Blockchain Can Facilitate Government Operations And Reduce Public Mistrust

Blockchain, the underpinning technology of Bitcoin, inherently provides transparency, security, and verifiability due to its decentralized nature and the cryptography that is embedded into every transaction on the digital ledger. Therefore, its attributes make blockchain appealing to the federal government as a mechanism that can address these issues where current technologies fall short and/or are currently dealt with by federal employees. The proposed blockchain goals can be summarized to address three key issues:

  • Identification – As the lines distinguishing our physical lives from our digital profiles continue to blur, the ability to verify one’s physical identity through digital technologies is increasingly imperative. For the government, establishing a digital ID system on a blockchain allows individuals’ identities to be more readily and securely verified than examining a packet of papers. More specifically, a blockchain-based ID program allows immigrants, refugees, and social welfare recipients to be more quickly and easily screened and verified.
  • Supply Chain Management – Blockchain technology is advantageous for reasons other than its security and ability to quickly validate a transaction or checkpoint. It can also trace these transactions and checkpoints and link them on a blockchain. Naturally, these properties make the technology an ideal candidate to better facilitate, manage, track, and assess the contents within a supply chain. In the context of government operations, a supply chain backed by a blockchain reduces time and effort spent by humans to ensure a successful delivery.
  • Decentralized Data Storage – As described below, the federal government is attempting to make its proprietary data more widely accessible to the public. Blockchain technology packs data into decentralized yet secure ‘blocks’ that are publicly visible on a digital ledger. Therefore, it lends an opportunity for the government to weave it into its open data initiative as a mechanism to securely and openly deliver its wealth of resources the public can utilize. This type of transparency is a stepping stone towards mending the deteriorating relationship between our federal government and the citizens it serves.  


2. Artificial Intelligence Supports A More Efficient Workforce

Contrary to popular belief, AI is not an immediate threat to humanity. While these computer systems will eventually outperform humans in completing routine tasks, they are designed to complement our workforce, not supplant it. Adding a layer of artificial intelligence into software programs can streamline some of the more laborious human tasks, and in terms of government operations, these three areas were discussed as prime opportunities for AI:

  • Customer Services – As explained by DigitalGov, a smooth customer experience is paramount for the government because of its role as a sole-service provider. By incorporating AI, its customer service management (CSM) platforms can more efficiently navigate a customer to a solution. Consider a more advanced chatbot-like device that can process basic criteria to connect a user to the exact person he/she needs to communicate with in order to solve a problem.
  • Recruitment – There are an estimated 2 million federal government employees, and as that number continues to grow, hiring managers will increasingly have their hands full when properly vetting prospective federal employees. By providing basic preliminary vetting criteria, AI can sift through and eliminate unqualified job applicants before his/her resume reaches a hiring managers’ desks. As a result, they can spend more time focusing on the applicants that actually have a chance to win the job.
  • Metadata Analysis – Last week, I wrote about how the AI industry is increasingly embracing crowdsourcing to improve and accelerate the technology’s ability discover new trends and insights by comparing incongruent data sources. While this capability is not yet fully built out, its potential to produce large-scale metadata will be one of AI’s greatest attributes and should not go unnoticed. For the government, AI-generated metadata can identify areas of opportunities in society that will enable individuals to make more-informed decisions.   


3. Open Data Leads To A Healthier And More Informed Society

Government research has produced a myriad of useful resources through rigorous data collection. However, the notion of making government-obtained data available to the public has only been a reality since 2009. Nonetheless, as a result of the creation of data.gov, the amount of data open to the public has proliferated to roughly 200,000 datasets represented by some 10 million different resources. Three primary targets were discussed as areas in which society can benefit from open data:

  • Public Health –  Federal agencies such as the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) were established to promote public health decades ago. However, its research data has only been made publicly available as of 2011, but it has since released 3,537 datasets and 8,404 data resources. By continuing to share rich public health data online, citizens obtain greater access to key information they can channel into more educated decision making that improves the overall health of our society.
  • Disaster Relief – This year’s recent hurricane season has been increased attention towards leveraging digital technologies to better handle the aftermath of these natural disasters. In particular, there is an emphasis on utilizing crowdsourcing and social media to understand and respond to emergencies. However, these services and platforms can be more robust and effective in tandem with demographic and topographic research from data.gov. Therefore, open data facilitates public-private partnerships that will sharpen disaster relief efforts and save more lives.  
  • Citizen Science – Modern technology has become a springboard for citizen science, the term used to describe the scientific research, analysis, and discovery that takes place outside the realm of professional science laboratories and institutions. By releasing its own scientific data to the public, the government can better champion these endeavors and contribute to this growing trend of scientific achievements taking place on the grassroots level.

Despite all of the brilliant ideas that swirled around the GSA building, the dialogue of how to best leverage these emerging technologies has only just begun. In addition, the conversations spawned by the workshop are just scratching the surface of the potential solutions these technologies can provide. And given the private-public collaborative nature of the event, it is clear the policies and initiatives that stem from this National Action Plan will benefit a wide audience.


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