Open government innovation from NASA fuels launch of OpenStack and Nebula

Earlier today, a new startup emerged from stealth at OSCON in Portland, Oregon. Nebula looks to democratize cloud computing with open source hardware.

Nebula appliance As Venturebeat reported, by combining OpenStack with Facebook’s OpenCompute project, Nebula could bring cloud computing to everyone with a cloud appliance.

It’s going to be a while before we’ll know if this bold vision comes to pass, but it’s important to be clear: this private sector innovation and startup is the outgrowth of one of NASA’s open government initiatives, where a technology developed by the government was released to the public to innovate upon.

That outcome can be at least partially attributed to Nebula CEO Chris Kemp, the former NASA CTO for IT, built a cloud “dream team” for Nebula’s launch from Kleiner Perkins’ basement. Nebula has the potential to bring cheaper private clouds to enterprises and small to medium-sized business to government, which could stand to leapfrog a generation of technology. (Putting a cloud behind an organization’s firewall could also address the security and compliance challenges that have hampered adoption of public cloud by enterprise and government users.) You can watch the announcement of Nebula at OSCON in the video below:

I talked with Kemp yesterday about OpenStack, his new startup, enterprise IT and innovation in government. “I am just unbelievably excited about all of the innovation that’s going to happen, he said. “When I left NASA, there was an open playing field. Citrix has bet their company on a tech that emerged out of NASA. Rackspace has incorporated it as well. Dell and HP are working with OpenStack too.”

Kemp, at least for now, doesn’t appear to be looking towards acquisition as his exit strategy. “We’re building a whole new company,” he said. “It’s not going to acquired by Dell or another large vendor. It’s too important to be lost in a big organization. The opportunity here is to build a lasting company that plays a key role in how computing unfolds.”

It’s the potential to change the world that seems to have brought a glint to Kemp’s eye. “This is why I left NASA,” he said. “I had this idea, this concept, I knew it had the potential to change the world, I knew it was time to build that. There are things you can only do inside of government, and there are things you can only do outside of government.”

In at least one sense, this outcome is about Gov 2.0 versus the beast of bureaucracy, once again. “The thing I learned at NASA is the biggest barrier to this stuff is the culture within the organization,” said Kemp. “It’s people. In a federal agency, people have been there forever and have spent tons of money on tools. What we’re doing with this appliance will disrupt a lot of that.”

Kemp also offered a suggestion to government agencies with innovators trying to make a difference. “The real shame is that you take the most risk-averse people in the world – government civil servants – and make them take the most dangerous leap, to end their careers, to be entrepreneurs. Imagine if government allowed people to take one year without pay, try to create something, and then return to public service.”

While that may be an unlikely dream, Kemp has left government himself, jumping to an endeavour that has the potential to disrupt the future of computing. “We want people to build on a platform that isn’t unnecessarily expensive or reliable,” he said. “We’re selling a little box that creates an infrastructure service and supporting it. You plug it in at the top of the rack where basically joins ‘the collective.’ It becomes part of a massive compute and storage cloud that’s compatible with Amazon and allows anyone to use a cloud that based on standards.
And they can do it with the cheapest hardware.”

Open source has been a key component of NASA’s open government work. Now one of its open source projects may become part of the work of many other people in industries unrelated to aerospace. With the launch of Nebula, an open government initiative looks set to create significant value — and jobs — in the private sector, along with driving open innovation in information technology.

Simpl tries to make connecting innovation to local government easier

There’s a new platform to bridge the connection between social innovators and government. Simpl, a joint project between FutureGov and Rock Creek Strategic Marketing, is short for “Social Innovation Marketplace.” As of last Friday, are Simpl is open for ideas in both the United Kingdom and United States.

For now, this open government startup is bootstrapping and focused on local government. “We’ll be exploring a bunch of avenues over the coming months, but for certain we see cities as important and the local as being the right level for being able to support this kind of action,” said co-founder Dominic Campbell. “That’s why we’re launching it with Code for America.” Craiglist founder Craig Newmark described the “social innovation speed dating” that’s set to take place in San Francisco tonight in more detail, for those interested in learning more or attending.

“We are committed to helping government embrace social innovation, handing over power to citizens,” said Campbell. “We see Simpl as a key tool to support the work we do with city governments to open up, connect and innovate.” His presentation from last year’s Open Cities Conference in the UK, embedded below, offers some more insight on that vision.

Campbell offered more insight into what Simpl is all about in a brief interview.

What is Simpl all about?

DC: It’s not about competition, it’s not (really) about money. It’s about peer to peer support and collaboration putting social innovator in touch with government. Not top down, not predetermined parameters by government – but instead gives people the opportunity to say, “Hey, this is a great idea I’m working on to fix a problem that you probably didn’t even know existed. How about you help me make it happen?” It’s mostly aimed at government but much wider. It’s more about meeting a social need as defined by the people who have that need and know what they need to make it happen. That’s often access to people in power more than money, or some borrowed skills, etc. It builds on the challenge model and says, “Hey, perhaps government doesn’t know the problems, so how can it set challenges to meet them? Who better than to define the problem/challenge/wish the person on the receiving end?”

What makes Simpl different from other platforms?

The competitive differentiator is that it is entirely agnostic. It’s about bringing people together, whoever they are, whether in government or out of government, to identify and solve challenges, meeting their own goals with or without the help of government. Frankly, Scott, me, Carrie, and most people we know have more ideas than time to make them happen so this is a vehicle to made that happen.

Why does Simpl matter to citizens?

The key is that this is all about the average citizen. They are the captive audience. They are the people on the site shaping the site from the start. Government is a key partner. That’s something we’ll be working very hard to do to connect our good government (and more than government) network into the ideas to help elevate them and help them meet their goals.

What’s else is ahead?

There’s tech development, in response to a number of requests we’ve already had for people wanting to use our matching software. We’re considering the possibility of adding some paid-for features over time. But all the functionality you see today will remain free.

POPVOX tries to bring the voice of the people into Congress

The explosion of social media use in the United States has been greeted with enthusiasm by digital evangelists who argue that online platforms will be an upgrade on the existing communications systems between citizens and Congress. After the 2008 and 2010 elections, it’s clear that while social media now plays a role, the voices of citizens aren’t necessarily being heard in Congress any more effectively. Where phone calls used to swamp Capitol Hill switchboards, now, email, tweets and Facebook comments can overwhelm Congressional staffers. That reality was articulated in a speech by Marci Harris at the Gov 2.0 Summit this year, embedded below:

Two months later, Harris’s new company, POPVOX*, has announced its public beta, aiming to “bridge the gap between the input the public wants to provide to Congress, and the information Members of Congress need to receive.”

“Constituent communications are overwhelming Congressional offices,” said POPVOX CEO Marci Harris in a prepared statement. Harris, who has worked as a Congressional staff member, understands this issue better than most. “Members of Congress really do want to hear what constituents have to say. Unfortunately, today’s communication tools dramatically increase the ability to generate messages going in to Congress without helping Congress handle the influx. The increasing emails, Tweets, Facebook comments, petitions, form letters, faxes, etc. are having the unintended effect of turning genuine citizen engagement into unintelligible noise.”

The approach that POPVOX takes to this information flood is to act as a platform for citizen-to-Congressional staff communication, identifying citizens as constituents to staffers, guiding visitors to pending legislation and publishing data-driven dashboards that show the organizations that are lining up on the issues. The customers for POPVOX are the advocacy organizations that want to get more awareness of their legislative lobbying and to partners with similar advocates.

“Many grassroots campaigns don’t take into account that Members of Congress have limited ability to respond to general expressions of outrage or support. They can introduce, co-sponsor, or vote yes or no on a bill. That’s about all they can realistically do,” said Harris in her statement. “By focusing the POPVOX platform on pending legislation and not general ‘issues,’ and making comments on POPVOX public, searchable and sortable by anyone, we are able to turn constituent voices into something that a legislator can actually use.”

According to POPVOX, the service has already been used during its pre-beta release by organizations that oppose H.R. 4646: Debt Free America Act or those that support H.R. 676: Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act or by the Association of Flight Attendants to build support for H.R. 915: FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009. A number of bills up for consideration during the lame duck Congressional session this winter have also been receiving user comments, including H.R. 1751: American Dream Act and H.R. 3458: Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009.

POPVOX, a nonpartisan corporation, joins an increasingly hot space. TechCrunch covered Votizen in September, another startup which has received $1.5 million dollars to “make sure government representatives hear your voice.” Sound familiar?

As Jason Kincaid noted, “The startup sprung, in part, from the success of a Votizen-powered Twitter campaign earlier this year that was held in support of the Startup Visa. Thousands of people tweeted their support for the bill, and Votizen actually delivered their messages by hand to the appropriate people.” Another firm, Frogloop, coordinates social media campaigns in support of advocates’ issues. FireSide21 provides a suite of technology tools for constituent communications, including CRM, email marketing, telephone town halls and more.

The open question for POPVOX now will be whether their platform can reboot the relationship between citizens and legislators, and do so sustainably, effectively and profitably. Given the historic low ratings for Congress, there’s certainly plenty of room for improvement.

*DISCLAIMER: Tim O’Reilly, my publisher, provided angel funding for POPVOX. He calls it “a kind of Google Analytics service for politics, bringing visibility and actionable insight to both Congressional staffers and advocacy organizations.” My choice to cover the beta launch startup did not come as the result of his request nor that of Harris, who I met for a briefing on Capitol Hill earlier this year.

Brad Feld on the gap between Washington, VCs, entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley

How important is the disconnect between the Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C.? As the United States transitions from an industrial economy into the Information Age, the importance of Washington securing legislation and regulations that promote security and innovation has perhaps never been greater. Small businesses are the source of many jobs, and yet the barriers that entrepreneurs face in getting startups off the ground are legion. Stimulating open government entrepreneurship is a key issue for the Gov 2.0 movement and yet the examples of successful startups are dwarfed by the pages of the regulations that govern them.

I spoke with Brad Feld about all of these issues at the Gov 2.0 Summit earlier this month. Feld has been an early stage investor and entrepreneur for over 20 years. Prior to co-founding Foundry Group, he co-founded Mobius Venture Capital and, prior to that, founded Intensity Ventures, a company that helped launch and operate software companies and later became a venture affiliate of the predecessor to Mobius Venture Capital. Our interview is embedded below:

Those concerns where voiced yesterday by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman this week, who told Hillicon Valley that entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley could benefit from a stronger lobbying presence in Washington D.C.:

“I realized one of the paradoxes of the entrepreneurship ecosystem that is so important to society is: We don’t have an entrepreneurship lobby,” he said, “because entrepreneurs are off doing it.”

Policymakers tend to ignore start-up concerns, according to Hoffman.

“The natural process of ‘oh, I’m responding to these lobbies, I’m responding to old political interests’ tends to always drown out the entrepreneurs,” he said.

It’s easy to ignore the concerns of newer companies, according to Hoffman, a partner at Greylock Partners, a venture capital firm in California.

“Some folks are trying to [help] but people are like, ‘OK, I can deal with that later; I don’t really care,'” he said.

Stimulus funding is a key example of startups getting government short shrift, according to Hoffman.

“The way this is described is ‘shovel-ready jobs,'” he said, arguing that kind of funding would not benefit new companies who are “key to our future.”

“It’s much easier when you’re embedded in the political infrastructure to respond to immediate things” such as the stimulus package, he said.

StartUP Visa

Another issue of critical importance to entrepreneurs is top technical talent. That’s why Feld and others have been advocating for a “startup visa.” In the video from Gov 2.0 Summit below, he talks about the startup visa legislation and why it matters to VCs and the innovation economy.

According to the website supporting the legislation in the Senate, S. 3029, the StartUP Visa Act alien entrepreneurs who have received significant capital from investors to establish a business in the United States. Specifically:

  • Have a required amount of financial backing from a qualified investor or venture capitalist
  • Have a commercial business that will generate a predetermined level of employment, revenue or capital investment
  • The goal of the StartUP Visa legislation is to create an alternate visa system to the H1B program, in which temporary visas are granted to immigrants working in specialized fields including the high-tech industry. Currently, there are 65,000 HIB visas awarded to immigrants and an additional 20,000 H1B visas awarded to individuals who hold an advanced degree. Additionally, this legislation would create a new set of visas that require immigrants to invest at least $1 million dollars in the US and employ at least 10 people.

    One hundred and sixty venture capitalists and angel investors support the bill. According to the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA), 25 percent of America’s venture-backed and publicly-traded businesses, including: Google, Yahoo!, eBay, Intel, Pfizer, DuPont and Procter & Gamble are examples of American success stories founded or co-founded by foreign born residents. Further, in 2005, these companies netted more than $52 billion in sales and employed 450,000 workers. In 2006, 24% of all filled patents had foreign residents listed as the inventor or co-inventor.

    To date, the StartUP Visa Act has not advanced beyond committee.