Celebrating Our Veterans With “Apps for Heroes”

Last Wednesday, we joined Dr. Jill Biden at the Code for America headquarters, a non-profit startup that has attracted dozens of civic-minded software developers spending a year building new products and services – powered, in part, by open government data – to improve the lives of everyday Americans.

Dr. Biden celebrated the convening efforts of Code and 10 apps developed by the private sector to improve the employment prospects for our Nation’s heroes – from apps that help veterans build new skills or a professional network, to a personalized list of open job postings. We observed the results of LinkedIn’s “Veterans Hackday” – two of the 44 apps built over a weekend; a collaboration between two tech companies that had never worked together before – Jibe and KMS Software – to deliver an almost-paperless approach to qualify for eligible tax credits; and the impressive work of a veteran entrepreneur, Fidelis, focused on the military to civilian transition.

We saw these and other “Apps for Heroes” because Code for America made a commitment last August in response to the President’s call to action. We joined Code on this mission and engaged a broader voluntary collaborative of tech firms already active in the employment and training online market. They didn’t ask us for money. Rather, we brainstormed how government data, if released in a people-and-computer-friendly format, could serve as “rocket fuel” for their apps.

And then we went to work.

Inspired by President Obama’s Open Government Initiative and guided by the U.S. National Action Plan, we identified at least three areas where we might open up data that had previously been either in an inaccessible format, organized in a fragmented way, or largely unknown to the developer community:

  1. Military Service Information:  Veterans today collect a form – the DD-214 – that captures their military “resume”; while it can be electronically accessed, the data within the form is protected and in a form that isn’t accessible for a computer to read. Building on the momentum of VA’s initiative, Dr. Levin expanded their “Blue Button” service - which enables a veteran to safely and securely download their personal health data in computer-friendly form - to include a veteran’s service history, training, and credentials. Launched just in the beginning of December, over 60,000 veterans have already downloaded a “Blue Button” file that can be shared with the products and service as they see fit, like the apps for heroes we saw last week.
  2. Military Skills Translator:  The Department of Labor actively supports a non-profit, the O*Net center, to maintain a growing portfolio of tools and data sets that are freely available to developers or anyone for that matter.  The problem was that very few of the developers we engaged over the past several months were even aware of this resource.  When we showed them what we had they immediately went to work on “translating” military experience into skills that are relevant for their existing products and services.
  3. Job Postings from Employers Seeking Veterans:  President Obama launched theVeterans Job Banklast November, which provides access to hundreds of thousands of job postings from employers actively committed to hiring veterans. Built on an open standard, the “JobPosting” schema – endorsed by a coalition of search engines (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo) through the schema.org community – empowers any employer to ensure its job postings are discoverable by the Job Bank.  The big idea is that instead of requiring every employer to update a centralized database, we can dynamically “search” for veteran-committed jobs.  Its faster, cheaper, and more reliable way to connect employers to talent. The Job Bank itself is accessible at the National Resource Directory and its search widget, built in an effort to support developers has offered an API that delivers search results straight to the app.  

Finally, I thought to share the power of Open Innovation @ Internet speed. At a Summer Jobs + event last Tuesday, Twilio CEO, Jeff Lawson challenged the Twilio developer community to build an “App for Heroes.” In about an hour – from concept to go-live – developer Tony Webster built HeroJobs.org, a text messaging app that sends job alerts to veterans every morning based on their preferences, experience, and zip code.

We were humbled and honored that so many innovative firms volunteered their time and effort to incorporate these – and other open government data sets – as an important ingredient for their innovate employment or training support service. Our visit inspired us to push even harder to release government data, celebrate its use, and to engage our veterans directly to ensure they have the support they need in this important life transition.

Aneesh Chopra is U.S. Chief Technology Officer and Peter Levin is Chief Technology Officer and Senior Advisor to the Secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs

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