The Obama administration has been working behind the scenes over the last few years to upgrade information technology throughout the federal government in an effort to improve intra- and inter-agency communication.
According to Aneesh Chopra, the White House’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO), the main thrust of the effort has been to reduce the friction of sharing information inside and outside of the government, reducing bureaucratic barriers to growing 21st century businesses, and acting as a facilitator to help the private sector standardize its available data for public and private use.
The progress report came last week during a White House Tweetup event only a few days before Chopra announced his departure from the CTO job. The tweetup program allows a select handful of social media enthusiasts to attend events inside the White House to meet with administration officials.
Chopra grew up in New Jersey, the son of Indian immigrants. His career began as a technology consultant for the healthcare industry, and he later became the Secretary of Technology for the state of Virginia before taking the White House position. He said his role in the Obama administration was to bring rapidly developing technologies to the slow moving cogs of the federal bureaucracy.
“My job was created the first day the president came into office. It did not exist before,” Chopra said, “We immediately went about the question, ‘What are the tools the government has to spark innovation?’”
Chopra said that government’s role in encouraging innovation in the economy typically involved the creation or modification of laws and putting research and development dollars into budgets — both of which require the approval of the glacially slow Congress.
Chopra and his team brainstormed ways to encourage innovative thinking without the need for expensive budgets or additional laws. They made the administration take on the role of “impatient convener” — which was essentially both a policy initiative and perhaps an apt description of the energetic 39-year-old presidential advisor.
Driving Open Data Standards
One of the first initiatives that came from the impatient convener philosophy was the “Green Button” — a voluntarily program to encourage utility companies to provide energy usage data in a standardized and downloadable format. The standard data format would allow app developers to come up with software to help consumers make better energy consumption choices. Three of the largest utilities in California have signed on and are now providing customer data in that format.
A similar project was launched in the health care sector through what’s called the “Blue Button.” It began at first as a means to allow veterans to download their personal medical data from the Veterans Administration, but is now expanding into the private sector. Participation is voluntary on behalf of health insurers and providers, but many are seeing value in making standardized data available to consumers for a variety of applications.
Finding Flexibility without Bureaucracy
The Blue Button initiative also created an innovative means to protect patient privacy for health care records without the need for additional legislation. Chopra said the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) of 1996, which set privacy standards for medical records, did not account for personal medical record services offered by Microsoft, Google, and others nearly a decade later.
Both the Bush and Obama administrations brought privacy advocates, healthcare industry leaders, and technology companies together to work on a solution. The result was a voluntary but industry-wide standard that is enforceable under existing law through the Federal Trade Commission.
Chopra also talked about some subtle administrative changes made to the H1B visa program that allows foreign high-tech workers the ability to hold jobs in the United States. Joined at the meeting by Instragram co-founder and Brazil native Mike Krieger, Chopra said H1B eligibility was expanded into additional high tech categories, and allows those using an H1B Visa to start companies in the United States.
A Kinder, Gentler SOPA?
Chopra thinks there’s an opportunity to apply a similar process to protecting intellectual property, now that it appears the SOPA and ProtectIP bills have died in Congress. The White House issued a statement on its “We the People” petition site encouraging content creators and Internet companies to work together on similar voluntary measures to combat online piracy.
“I don’t know if the timing is right now, because of the tensions,” Chopra said. “But where and when that conversation is to take place — we have pledged in our statement we will be there, we will lead, and we will do so in a data driven and thoughtful manner.”
Opening Federal Data to Internal and External Scrutiny
Chopra wants the open data standards widely accepted in the private sector to apply to the federal government as well. He points to initiatives like data.gov that to date has opened up more than 390,000 federal databases for anyone to use. Most of that data wasn’t made available even within the government, let alone to the public short of a Freedom of Information Act request.
Much of the information is in the form of raw, complex data from federal agencies. But in the hands of skilled software engineers, applications are starting to emerge to help people make sense of it and to link it to other data. Chopra says much of the software being used to create data.gov also will be made available to state, local, and even international governments.
“We are going agency by agency, cabinet member by cabinet member, and saying, ‘What are your biggest policy challenges? Start to think about how liberating data will help achieve those challenges,’” Chopra said.
Chopra has not announced where he is going after leaving the White House, although many are speculating he will be pursuing elected office, possibly as a Lieutenant Governor candidate in Virginia.