Techies meet with Feds to hash out Gov 2.0

Techies meet in Washington this week to ponder iPhone-like apps for government computer systems.

This week, a couple hundred federal officials, software developers and even a few investors are meeting to hash out ways techie engineers — as well as ordinary citizens — can help government systems run more efficiently.

It’s a movement called Gov 2.0, playing off the Web 2.0 term to describe interactive websites. Tim O’Reilly, who helped coin both phrases, organized the gathering, which is being held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and has ginned up significant buzz.

O’Reilly is best known for writing a popular series of computer books and hosting technology conferences. He’s now spending more time in Washington, talking with lawmakers about how to leverage Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. He’s also trying to get agencies to open up raw public data that developers can build online and mobile applications around — a concept Vivek Kundra, federal chief technology officer, has pioneered in the Office of Management and Budget.

“People have this idea that the government has all these resources, but most of those resources are already spoken for,” O’Reilly said Wednesday between company demonstrations. “We need people with tech skills to come to Washington, identify big challenges and show us what’s possible.”

Gov 2.0 has a few definitions. Some say it’s about making the government more transparent; others claim it’s about using social media to reach constituents.

O’Reilly — along with his friends at Google, Facebook and Amazon, to name a few — says it’s more about letting tech mavens build tools for the government; similar to how Apple built the iPhone and let software developers create applications for it, the government should offer its own array of citizen-produced applications.

Kundra will be at the conference on Thursday morning, talking about just that. That afternoon, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski will talk about his plans to build out broadband services so citizens can more easily participate in Gov 2.0.

Getting more lawmakers on the social media bandwagon is also important, said O’Reilly, who points to Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) as a model, even though he doesn’t “necessarily agree with his politics.” Culberson is the co-founder of the Republican New Media Caucus.

Speaking of social media, another gathering called CongressCamp is happening this weekend. It aims to bring staffers together to brainstorm ways to take advantage of social media, as well as how to avoid its pitfalls. (You mean I shouldn’t put those photos of the senator at happy hour on Facebook?)

The two-day event is sold out, but enterprising staffers can surely talk their way in.

Virtual healthcare reform

In the health reform lobbying frenzy, one active presence on Capitol Hill is an unlikely tech firm: Intel.

The chip company sees an opportunity in providing care to patients while they are at home, specifically targeting seniors and people with chronic conditions. This concept of virtual care, which is enabled by Intel-funded medical devices, sensors and a high-speed Internet connection, hasn’t been a central issue in the debate over healthcare reform.

But Eric Dishman, who founded Intel’s small Digital Health Group five years ago, is making the rounds in the Senate Finance and Appropriations committees, the Congressional Budget Office, and with pretty much any lawmaker who has an interest in health, science and research.

He’s tracking 110 line items across five healthcare bills.

In Intel’s view, letting doctors and nurses monitor patients remotely will save money and get more people treated. The glitches: There is no payment system to reimburse doctors for virtual visits, privacy laws are unclear about how doctors can use patient data obtained virtually and budget officials see it as an added cost to reform.

“The number of seniors in this country will double in the next 15 years, and we’re about to double the number of people insured in this country,” Dishman said. “That could bankrupt our health system, but it’s also an enormous business opportunity. We could pay for healthcare with the jobs created by these technologies.”

Google already a winner

Another tech giant is in the middle of the healthcare debate. As lawmakers wrangle with the details, lobbying and advocacy groups are duking it out online.

And that’s good for Google’s business.

Search queries for “healthcare reform” spiked by more than 1,000 percent in August. That’s prompted more than 97 advertisers, from AARP to MoveOn.org, to buy keyword ads from Google in an effort to get their points of view in front of Web surfers. (The term “healthcare” has more than 4,000 advertisers.) The Service Employees International Union, for example, has used an extensive search campaign to encourage people to send their medical bills to Congress.

Peter Greenberger, head of Google’s political advertising team, said the steep competition for ad placement has pushed up the ad prices through the company’s auction system. But for most advertisers, online ads are still a small part of their marketing budgets. Television still gets the bulk of those dollars.

Privacy plans a secret so far

Privacy groups met with a dozen House Energy and Commerce Committee staffers Tuesday to push for legislation that would limit the type and amount of personal data Internet companies can track as consumers browse the Web. The groups say Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook increasingly serve consumers ads based on their online activity, and need to be reined in.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who chairs the Technology and Internet subcommittee, has plans to draft a bill that would safeguard sensitive information, but it’s unclear what types of data that would include.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, has not yet committed to legislation. So far, no drafts have been circulated, but staffers said hearings would be planned for the fall.