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Michael Byrne: “Make things easier”

Michael Byrne
Michael Byrne

Michael Byrne is currently a Project Director in the Technology and Innovation Division at the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.  He is the lead for implementing the technology supporting Home Mortgage Disclosure Act activities for CFPB.  Prior to joining CFPB, he was the Geographic Information Officer at the Federal Communications Commission.  Prior to that, he was the Geographic Information Officer for the State of California.

This interview is a personal response.

Michael was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You are the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act Operations Lead at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. What does your job entail? What kinds of projects do you work on, and what kinds of technologies do you use?

A: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is a great organization, and I am honored to be an employee. I lead the technology team that will be implementing the new technology around the collection of Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) data. HMDA requires many lenders to report information about the home loans for which they receive applications or that they originate or purchase. The public and regulators can use the information to monitor whether financial institutions are serving the housing needs of their communities and identify possible discriminatory lending patterns. You can read more about what CFPB is up to on HMDA here and here.

Q: Your GIS career spans two decades, yet you are best known (and widely revered) for spearheading the National Broadband Map effort at the FCC in 2013. Why do you think that is?

A: I would like to set a few things straight before I answer. First, the National Broadband Map was the statutory obligation of the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). NTIA worked with the FCC to implement the technology. So my role was on the tech implementation side. Really NTIA’s stellar efforts to set up the program, ensure the data was collected, and truckloads of other details needs to be highlighted and need all kinds of credit. Second, I won’t say I am revered. I can hope that my sons love me back; that is as far as I will ever go.

I think I have had the benefit of good timing. My second job in GIS in California state government was at the California Department of Forestry, an early pioneer in GIS (ESRI user #46). I met people there which set me on a great path. I went on to become the first Geographic Information Officer for the State because of the people I met in that first job; really it was timing. The same pattern holds true with the work at FCC. There was kind of a perfect storm, and I had the fortune of being there for the ride.

We were able to develop a team of exceptional people. Not sure if that was luck, or something else, but a handful of them were already at FCC and I had the great fortune to work with them.

Open Source was just becoming a buzzword in federal IT, and we latched on to it. I think in some case we became a poster child but honestly there was a timing issue we were just fortunate to be open to at the time. I am very proud of the work we did there, and the web metrics really point to it. Just this past spring we passed half a billion API requests. So I think we had the timing to be open to new ways of thinking, but we also had the timing to build something that lots and lots of people wanted to use. Had we built something super shiny that no one wanted to use, I doubt we would be having this conversation.

Q: Was open source a hard sell at the FCC? If yes, how did you overcome the hurdles? If no, why not?

A: Open Source was not really a hard sell at FCC. I would say there were basically three things that went on that contributed to the use of open source there. First, FCC has a culture of disparate technology uses. So you ended up with an IT infrastructure that was highly blended from ColdFusion to Java to you-name-it and everything in-between. So when we proposed something new, our infrastructure team was like, sure we maintain all kinds of things so no problem.

Second was funding. The National Broadband Map was initially funded with American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funding. When we tried to look at out-year funding we had all kinds of constraints. So we switched out Oracle for PostGIS. We never intended to make a wholly tooth to tail open stack, we intended to use the best tool for the job, and it happened to be wholly open source.

Third there was support from leadership including Chairman Genachowski who was a significant figure in technology and had an interest in the idea that open source and in particular innovation in technology is a disruptive force, as well as the Chief Data Officer who had a big background in open source and helped along the way with inspiration, and the managing director VanRoekel.

Q: How will you top the National Broadband Map at the CFPB? Any “coming attractions” announcements?

A: You’ll have to stay tuned. What I do know is that the telecom and broadband landscape was very, very opaque. The National Broadband Map, and in particular http://www.fcc.gov/maps  opened up the opportunity to make that more transparent to many many people who never had the chance to know the underlying structure of advanced communications and how it affects them personally.

My hope is to use my skills and background to support the Bureau’s incredible mission and to leverage technology on projects like HMDA to support and advance the CFPB’s work and more informed consumers. If I have the opportunity to work towards that end, I will feel very fortunate.

Q: Do you think the current open/closed source balance — within and without the geo industry, and within and without government — will change significantly in the near future? Will open source continue to gain market share?

A: I think open source will continue to gain in market share. In particular I think we will see more robust models of how open source works. What I see going on is that we are entering a phase where the rapidity of change is increasing at such a rate that we will all need to continue to scale at increasingly exponential rate. Because of this rate, we will see a lot of new innovation.

What happens when we can write code in a super short time, because all the libraries we need are already lined up, but the same amount of time is consumed in our security review? Well, new advancements in open source will focus on problems like scaling security review to make authority to operate time to market faster (see gov ready). Or in data collections how do we flip things again to offer scale? One way is to look at distributed federated models à la git (see dat). I think we will see more and more company pricing models which support service models (e.g., pay for support) where the code is entirely open (Red Hat works this way).

Finally, I think we will see smaller and smaller software implementations that have bigger and bigger influences (take a look at D3). If we assume that the web is the platform, then the basic building blocks are CSS, JavaScript and HTML. In that construct, very small libraries or services can add tremendous value. I want to build systems that are working towards fewer and fewer moving parts (as in no database, no enterprise service bus, nothing other than data in JSON and some serving technology). This paradigm necessitates a lack of proprietary software (someone will figure out a way to manufacture something everyone needs), but in the meantime, I think keeping it simple will continue to foster open source gaining in market share.

Q: We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1106 responses). Since I launched GeoHipster, I learned that for many the term “hipster” has a derogatory connotation. For others it is meaningless. You wear Doc Martens every day and ride a fixie. You listen to punk rock and the Grateful Dead. Do people call you a hipster? Does it bother you if they do?

A: So I just want to make sure that the circle is complete here. First, Doc Martens have been part of my life. Second, fixie for me is a way of life. Third, I have seen the Grateful Dead 40 times. Finally, fourth, the best show I have ever seen is fIREHOSE at Slim’s in the early ’90s (and it wasn’t because I was flying the flannel while crowd-surfing over the pit, but they nailed a version of A Quick One, While He’s Away by The Who as an encore (FWIW, the night Les Claypool and the Flying Frog Brigade played Pink Floyd’s Animals in its entirety is a close second), but I digress.

It wouldn’t bother me if I’m referred to as a hipster, but I think we should be careful of labels. I think what we should do a lot of instead, is offer tons of affirmation. I think we should all strive for making sure we take the time to tell people when they have made cool things, and why its why its impactful. I think we should spend lots less time telling people why things are wrong, not working and how they have messed up.

Q: GeoHipster (and geohipsterism as a concept) is sometimes criticized for being exclusive and/or attempting to foster divisions within the industry. Or sometimes for being different for the sake of being different. Do you agree with those criticisms? Do you implement open source just to be different?

A: I think innovation requires being different, perpendicular to the mainstream. A smart friend always says, if you want the same results, keep doing what you are doing now. I definitely agree with that. I don’t choose a piece of software or a solution to be cool, I do it because it is the right tool for the job, or it provides me a positive return. I do think that being different for difference’s sake is perhaps not a great thing. I work in government, because in the end, I think that service to the public is super important. If we can implement functions and technologies to do that by being innovative, then that’s a tremendous outcome.

Q: I have yet to get on a fixie, even though I commute by bike every day, year-round. Am I missing out?

A: Not at all; I like my fixie because it works for me. You should try to see if it works for you. I love that you can hose it down, even with winter sludge. Your question caused me to write this blog post. I mean really it did. I don’t ride a fixie to be cool. I started riding one a long time ago. I recommend riding (whatever bike), because I love the freedom the bike gives.

In 1998 I took a bicycle frame building class at the UC Davis Experimental College where I actually welded the bike myself. I drew the plans for the frame dimensions with some Arc Macro Language and plotted on a large format plotter at work (I’ll find the code some day and post it). This was my second fixed gear, and to this day still ride it; one of my favorite all time bikes. I just want to be clear, that I have been riding fixies long before hipsters were zygotes and will ride it long after Portlandia goes off the air, but I only do this for me.

Q: Thank you very much for the interview. Is there anything else you would like to share with the GeoHipster readers?

A: Make things easier.