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When the cloud meets the crowd

Why agencies must change their ways to take full advantage of new software delivery models.

Dec. 31, 2013 - 11:13AM   |  
By DOUG BOURGEOIS   |   Comments
Doug Bourgeois is the vice president and chief cloud executive for VMware Public Sector. He also is the former CIO at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office and executive director of the Interior Department's National Business Center, one of the Federal Shared Services Centers.
Doug Bourgeois is the vice president and chief cloud executive for VMware Public Sector. He also is the former CIO at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office and executive director of the Interior Department's National Business Center, one of the Federal Shared Services Centers. ()

Crowdsourcing describes the technologies and processes for getting a sizeable and distributed group of people to deliver a solution. The cloud is a platform for delivering near-unlimited computing resources over the Internet, accessible to anyone, regardless of location. Combine the two and you have a powerful model for delivering software solutions. However, to take full advantage of this new model, public-sector organizations need to modify their approaches to software development and to seriously reconsider their staffing and acquisition practices.

There is no doubt that the public sector will soon embrace crowdsourcing software development via the cloud on a much greater scale. Why? First, ongoing budget challenges are forcing the harsh reality of “do more with less” across all areas of government, from federal to state and local. Crowdsourcing in the cloud offers a much lower-cost and lower risk alternative to current software acquisition approaches. Second, governments desire to be more innovative. Mobile, social, big data and other technologies have set the public’s expectations high. Face it, the public always believes it should get more for less from the government. Crowdsourcing taps into developer expertise previously not accessible via internal or traditionally contracted resources.

The inherent nature of the cloud makes it an ideal platform for crowdsourcing software solutions. Using the cloud, government agencies can instantly provision platforms for developers to design, develop, and test software from any approved location and talent pool. And the talent pool can be limited to those individuals with specific attributes, such as security clearances, geographic location or technical skills. This new model offers the potential for the public sector to radically shrink cost models for new and innovative software solutions while the cloud offers a rapid and low cost platform in which to innovate.

There are challenges to crowdsourcing solutions in the cloud. Security and governance are paramount to crowdsourcing’s success. Without proper controls in place, individuals and organizations with malicious intent could compromise government systems or gain access to sensitive and private data. Government staffing and acquisitiontechniques need to allow for flexibility in how work is awarded to individuals contributing from a crowd. For instance, what clearances and credentials will be required to participate in the crowd for a particular initiative? What types of contracts will need to be established to offer task orders to the crowd? Government organizations will also be challenged to maintain their quality and standards for application development solutions. By definition, leveraging a highly distributed crowd for development will place greater strain on the government’s integration and quality assurance practices. Without consistent coding standards, applications cannot be properly maintained, nor can they be integrated into the broader enterprise application architecture.

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In spite of these challenges,crowdsourcing has experienced significant commercial success even though it was only formally recognized in 2006. Solutions such asoDesk, Innocentive, and TopCoderhave allowed private sector corporations to develop software applications faster, with better quality, at less risk, and at a lower cost offered by insourced or outsourced alternatives. Some public sector organizations, including GSA’s Challenge.govand NASA’s Tournament Labs, have already embraced crowdsourcing with early success.

More recently, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) announced the Open Innovation Gateway, slated for an early 2014 launch. DIA’s platform for crowdsourcing software development will provide secure access, via secure endpoint interfaces (APIs), to DIA systems. The crowd will have zero access to government data. Requirements will be posted on a wiki-like portal so that potential crowd developers can offer solutions to satisfy a specific organization’s needs. Through this cloud and crowdsourcing model, DIA expects greater innovation, and at a faster pace, than with conventional software development acquisition techniques. This is an important point. The practices used across the government to acquire innovative technology solutions will have to evolve. There is an effort underway and making its way through the Congress to do just that. Time will tell if such a legislative fix will be enough to open the door to improved innovation through crowdsourcing, but it appears to be a step in the right direction.

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Will “Cloud and the Crowd” replace existing software development techniques to become the future of software development? I have already made the case that crowdsourcing software development in the cloud promises several benefits, but it also has its challenges. However, there are many ways to mitigate the risks. The following describes three such strategies: First, agencies should use a hybrid cloud model in which most development is performed using traditional in-house/outsourced methods. But, unique and discreet problems can be offered to the crowd. Second, agencies should consider establishing developer community clouds focused on various public sector communities of interest such as homeland security, transportation, and healthcare. Agencies could then limit these community cloud-crowds to only approved developers such as existing government employees and contractors from other agencies. Third, agencies could establish crowdsourcing contracts with traditional integrators in which “pools” of pre-approved developers can compete for work across companies and based upon smaller, discreet, development tasks as opposed to massive program/project awards.

The combination of the crowd and the cloud is ushering in a powerful new software development model for government. Yes, there will be challenges to crowdsourcing software development solutions within the cloud. But these challenges will be overcome. The upside in driving innovation at a much more competitive cost model at lower risk with rapid delivery cycles is far too compelling for the public sector to ignore. Every public sector organization will eventually leverage the crowd in the cloud. Why not begin planning for it now?

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