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Tony Parham on Starting Up the Massachusetts Government Innovation Office

Massachusetts' first GIO discusses open data and the evolution of his office.

Tony Parham was named the state’s first government innovation officer by Gov. Deval Patrick in 2012. Parham brings a varied background to the position, with experience in marketing, product management, software development and strategic planning. His mission is to find new ideas and technologies that make government function more smoothly for residents.

How has your office evolved?

Under the executive order that created my role, I reported to the governor and the secretary of administration and finance. Since then we’ve enhanced our partnerships, and now we’re also reporting into MassIT, our IT organization. I’ve also added a deputy GIO and launched a program that we call the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Innovation Fellows. We borrowed the concept from the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows program, where they bring in talented individuals from the private sector to tackle specific government projects. We thought that was a great idea, so now we have seven fellows who are absolute rock stars who will be working on projects for us for about 12 months.

What did you do first?

In the beginning my staff was just me, and I had a seed fund that I could use to start certain projects. I went on a listening tour where I talked to agency leaders about their customers and where there might be opportunities for innovation. Out of that came several hundred ideas. I created a set of guiding principles and identified a list of 11 projects. Business plans were created for each one of those and eight of them were funded.

Describe some of your best projects.

We have health and human services programs that receive reimbursement from federal funds. But funds were being left on the table because our data warehouse couldn’t report certain activities. So we enhanced the reporting capability of the data warehouse. For a $1 million, one-time investment we increased our federal financial participation by $11 million in the first year, plus $7 million per year going forward.

We also created an innovation crowdsourcing platform called iCatalyst, which can be pointed to specific audiences to provide feedback to help us solve thorny challenges. The tool can be pointed as narrowly or broadly as desired, and folks can securely get feedback from the audience to help them in their particular challenge.

How is the state using open data?

As mobile devices have become more prevalent, our commonwealth transportation authority could have created mobile applications, but they did not. Instead, they used an API to publish train and bus schedule information in an open, computer-readable format. That created an ecosystem of third-party applications.

We’ve moved on to do other things. For example, we’ve partnered with an organization called hack/reduce in Cambridge to host hackathons with data professionals. And we held what we called a Mass EduData Challenge, which was a competition to make education data more useful to parents, school council members and others. Now one of our Massachusetts Innovation Fellows is creating an open data portal where we’ll be publishing more open data.