Vivek Kundra, the Nation’s New CIO, Is Supporter of Seattle Startup, Tableau Software

3/5/09Follow @gthuang

Today, President Obama appointed Vivek Kundra federal chief information officer, which is a new administrative position in the U.S. government. Kundra, currently the District of Columbia’s chief technology officer, will be in charge of policy and strategic planning of federal investments in information technology. Kundra, 34, has previous experience as an executive at the DC-area software and IT firms Evincible and Creostar.

As it turns out, Kundra also has a connection to a Seattle tech startup. Since 2007, Kundra’s group in the DC municipal government has been using a data-visualization package from Tableau Software, based in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. Kundra’s group used Tableau’s product to create charts and graphs for its CapStat program, which has received a fair bit of attention as a way to present trends and analysis to the general public on municipal issues like crime, disaster response, school security, and city maintenance. The program is one of the ways in which Kundra has been recognized in his efforts to make the workings of the DC government more transparent.

Here’s how the Tableau connection came about. Back in early 2007, a DC data analyst named Phil Heinrich was asked to look into patterns of ambulance deployments across the city. He came across Tableau on the Internet, tried it out, and signed up as a customer. Pretty soon, he was using Tableau’s software to help the mayor of DC, Adrian Fenty, monitor city departments more effectively.

Heinrich’s boss reported to Kundra, the District’s chief technology officer. “Once Vivek saw this, he said, ‘This is what we need to do,’” says Elissa Fink, Tableau’s vice president of marketing. “He’s a big fan of Tableau. It makes it easy for the city of DC to see patterns in data without getting trapped in the details.” (Fink points out that Tableau’s other government customers include the City of Charlotte, NC, the New York City Department of Education, the Government of Canada, and the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department.)

Obama’s hope is that Kundra will also help bring more transparency to the federal government. One way this could potentially happen is through websites like Recovery.gov, which was set up to explain the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The intent of the site is to show how, when, and where money from the federal stimulus package is being spent by states, Congressional districts, and federal contractors. According to the site, it aims to “display the information visually, through maps, charts, and graphics.”

Which is where Tableau’s software could come into play. “Because of Vivek’s being a big fan, and what his organization has done with democratizing data, it’s interesting,” Fink says. “Part of democratizing data is technology. But there’s also the understanding of data and visualization. That’s where Tableau brings magic to it. It shows patterns you wouldn’t normally see by popping them into pictures. It connects to any data format, so it’s usable to anyone.”

It’s still too early to say whether Tableau will be used by the new CIO’s staff, though. “We’ve been talking to people around transparency in government,” Fink says. One of those people is David Stephenson, an author and consultant who has been collaborating with Kundra on a book called Democratizing Data. Stephenson is scheduled to speak at a Tableau customer conference in Seattle in July. (You can read about Kundra’s thoughts on technology, data, and the innovation economy here and here.)

As we’ve reported previously, Tableau raised a $10 million Series B round last September from New Enterprise Associates, and has been signing up customers and selling its wares at a record rate. The company was founded in 2003, and has been profitable since 2007.

Tableau isn’t the only Seattle startup with a tie to the Obama administration, either. Blist, based near Pioneer Square, was tapped by the Obama-Biden Transition Project in January to manage and publish interactive lists of donors on its website, Change.gov.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.