18F micro-purchase pilot reaps code for a dollar

Conventional wisdom says you don't use a credit card for incidental purchases. However, the team at 18F ran an experiment to see if they could buy work on open source code using a credit card — without running afoul of the federal acquisition regulation — and got exactly what they needed for just a dollar.

On Oct. 26, 18F officials posted an open competition to GitHub to incorporate data from IT Schedule 70 into the CALC tool, which tracks pricing for specific labor categories on awarded federal contracts. The competition was structured as a reverse-auction open to contractors registered with, with a starting bid of $3,499, just below the threshold for credit card purchases.

The bid "was a plot twist that no one here at 18F expected," said David Zvenyach, 18F director of acquisition management.

Prior to Sudol's bid, vendors were moving in increments of $50 (with one $740 jump), making the 18F team leery of the rock-bottom bid that would end the auction, Zvenyach said in a Nov. 6 blog post. The team contacted Sudol, confirmed that the bid was legitimate and that he was registered on SAM.

Nine days later, Sudol submitted the code, it was tested and, as of Nov. 6, it was incorporated into the CALC tool.

After watching the bids get down to $499 with just two hours left to go, Sudol decided to make his low-ball bid, eager to be a part of 18F's pilot.

"I figured it would be cool to be a part of this first micro-purchase experiment and demonstrate that there are people — at least one but I think a lot more — willing and excited to help out on meaningful, civic-minded initiatives," he said in an interview with Federal Times. "I love working on little web projects in my free time. This is $1 more than I make on those and this one actually helps people."

Initially, 18F officials weren't sure the pilot would work, with Zvenyach saying there was a good possibility it was "a terrible idea."

Despite some technical issues with the reverse-auction itself, Zvenyach considers the result a success.

"A few weeks ago, micro-purchasing for code was just an idea," he said. "But now that we've done our first experiment, the data demonstrate that the idea has potential and can be improved upon."

The team was thrown a bit by the $1 bid and difficulties using the platform — the one they built in-house wasn't ready on Oct. 26 and the Google Form they used wasn't optimal — but fully expect to try this again in the near future.

"In some respects, this result was the best possible outcome for the experiment. It proved that some of our core assumptions about how it would work were wrong," Zvenyach said. "But the experiment also validated the core concept that open-source micro-purchasing can work and it's a thing we should try to do again."

Overall, Sudol said he thinks the structure of the pilot is a perfect way to get people to contribute to federal open source projects.

"18F did a great job of defining a clear and contained problem that I knew I could accomplish and complete over a couple days in my spare time," he said. "I use open source technologies on a daily basis and this seemed like a great opportunity to give back a little."

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