The National Broadband Map: Case Study on Open Innovation for National Policy

By Zachary Bastian and Michael Byrne

In the Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2008, Congress directed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to produce an interactive and search- able map detailing broadband avail- ability nationwide. This mandate was part of a comprehensive effort toward utilizing broadband to drive economic growth and improve social welfare. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the National Broadband Plan, proposed in 2010, were also part of this effort. The former authorized funding to provide focused broadband invest- ments to reinvigorate an economy that had faced numerous challenges. The latter identified broadband as a vital ingredient in lasting infrastruc- ture improvement. Through these actions, Congress clearly recog- nized that Internet connectivity has become a vital part of our society for all members. To ensure that no one is left behind, it is necessary to pinpoint the gaps in Internet avail- ability across the United States and to identify priorities for action.

The National Broadband Map, the first step toward achieving these goals, was developed in an innovative way. Agencies face numerous regulatory burdens, and those that spearheaded the project, the NTIA and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), are no exception. However, the National Broadband Map was up and running in a relatively short period of time, and it has already had a tangible impact on policy. This is due to a series of deliberate deci- sions by the team that built the National Broadband Map.

The project team utilized a diverse set of “open innovation” inputs. They incorporated data from numerous sources and encouraged citizen input and feed- back in multiple ways and on a national scale. They built the Map by transparent means with the use of open-source software. The building blocks are freely available software programs, not proprietary products chained off by licensing fees. Breaking away from the traditional way in which government software is developed, the team took cues from the private sector’s operations. This method prioritized regular communication with programmers, allowing the agency to have a better understanding of the process as it happens—a remarkable break from the traditional method of government procurement. This novel approach also tapped into the enormous power of Geographic Information Systems, shifting away from dry, tabular representations of data toward dynamic visualizations of community needs. This groundbreaking project has already influenced congressional budget appro- priations through the Connect America Fund, now offering grants to communities that lack robust high-speed broadband service.

Different agencies have different priorities, and it will not be possible simply to apply this approach to other problems across the government. But the NTIA and the FCC were saddled with a large goal and given a small window of time in which to achieve it. They succeeded because of their creative approach, which included the development of innovative methods to overcome procedural hurdles, such as those outlined in the Paperwork Reduction Act. Other agencies with big goals, limited resources, and similar administrative challenges can examine this case study and, it is hoped, see lessons worth applying.

The video below is a discussion with the authors held Oct 15, 2012.

Reprinted from The Woodrow Wilson Center (pdf of entire white paper) under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Published Friday, May 24th, 2013

Written by Zachary Bastian and Michael Byrne

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