Experts: Put data in designers’ hands for better government

Census Bureau Chief Technology Officer Avi Bender speaks at Adobe Digital Government Assembly Feb. 24, 2016. (FedScoop)

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Government agencies need to look beyond the data they collect, and more toward what their customers are trying to accomplish and the design of their digital experiences, a group of government and industry IT leaders said today.

For most citizens, “85 percent of government processes begin with a form,” said Bryan Lamkin, Adobe’s executive vice president and general manager of digital media at the seventh annual Adobe Digital Government Assembly, which is produced by FedScoop.

But with two-thirds of Americans now using smartphones — and as many as half of job seekers filling out a job application on their smartphones last year, according to the Pew Research Center — Lamkin argued it’s critical for agencies to embrace data-driven digital design principles to serve the public more effectively.

That’s not necessarily simple, he acknowledged. While it’s never been easier to produce digital media, it’s also getting harder to keep up with customer expectations and the complexity of interoperable systems, he said.

However, “If you put data in designers’ hands, you’ll build magic,” he said.

Federal agencies are discovering that using agile design processes not only helps improve government services. They can also help “hack through bureaucracies,” said Hillary Hartley, deputy executive director of 18F, a digital services development team born out of the Presidential Innovations Fellows program and which now fields a 165-person working group helping government agencies develop smarter digital services.

Hartley recounted five lessons 18F staffers learned in driving the development of digital services.

“Think like a designer,” she said, and “let user needs drive all decisions.” She also stressed the importance of relying on data-driven analytics ahead of instinct in driving the design of digital services. And she emphasized using agile development practices – design, measure, repeat – and operating openly.

“We are open by default … with what we make and how we work,” she said.

The outcome yields something greater than a better designed digital application, she said. It also impacts the cultural behind the service. “We deliver digital services, but the goal is transformation. That’s how you transform lives.”

The benefits of looking at data collection and dissemination holistically and adopting open data principles are also becoming clearer, said U.S. Census Bureau Chief Technology Officer Avi Bender.

“Data is a nondepletable natural resource. Beyond that is what this data affords us to do,” he said. But what’s often missing, he said, is understanding what problems the data can solve.

“Simply deploying open data by itself is insufficient. We need to know our customers” and have “a conversation around specific problems,” he said. For the Census Bureau, that meant making information useful at the community and city level, he said.

He cited how the Census Bureau’s CitySDK tool, a software development kit released last year, led to the development of a prize-winning app, called Purshable, that helps redistribute perishable food to neighborhoods where it is most needed in the greater Chicago area.

The key lesson for data-centric agencies that are producing a product, he said, is “to look at your value and supply chain from beginning to end,” and “develop APIs from a lifecycle approach,” not simply provide access to data.

Adobe hopes to make that process easier for agencies with the announcement Wednesday that the company was releasing a new set of tools, called Adobe Digital Design Templates for Government.

According to Barry Leffew, the company’s vice president for public sector, the templates were created using open source standards and incorporate government-mandated accessibility requirements.

The package enables public sector website managers to create standards-compliant, responsive sites that take advantage of the latest Web design trends and enable agile project development quickly. The templates are available on Github.

Contact the reporter at wyatt.kash@fedscoop.com and follow him in Twitter @wyattkash.

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Census Bureau, Commerce Department, data analytics, Departments, open data, Tech
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