U.S. CTO Todd Park Out to Spur Entrepreneurship With Data “Jujitsu”

The chief technology officer of a company can have a wide range of responsibilities—from overseeing development of innovative new products to making sure servers stay up. But what about the chief technology officer of the United States of America? The position is barely three years old, created by President Obama in 2009, and is evolving fast. But does it involve fighting computer viruses and providing IT security, making government websites more accessible to the public, efficient technology purchasing, innovative new technology initiatives, working with startups, or what?

The answer is all of the above—with the exception of the fighting hackers and computer security part. Xconomy previously did this interview with the country’s first “chief techie,” Aneesh Chopra, who stepped down from the role earlier this year. The second person to fill the position is Todd Park, an entrepreneur well-known to folks in Boston for co-founding Athenahealth (somewhat ironically with Jonathan Bush, a cousin of President George W. Bush). Park, most recently CTO of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was appointed to take over from Chopra this past March. For anyone who knows him, Todd Park is uber-high-energy (at one point, he literally hopped around on stage at this Xconomy event) and from what I can tell, he has gone into an even higher gear in his first six months in his new role.

I caught up with Park on the phone recently to discuss the new job. It is defined in this White House blog post as “applying the newest technology and latest advances to make the Federal government work better for the American people.” But I asked Park to describe the gig in his own, more colorful words, which included being the “tech entrepreneur-in-residence for the U.S. government” and seeking to “jujitsu [government] data into the public domain,” thereby providing entrepreneurs with “free fuel” to trigger “a rising tide of innovation.” (Much more fun than the press release, don’t you think?)

We talked over some specifics of how he plans to achieve those goals, including a new program called the Presidential Innovation Fellows that is recruiting entrepreneurs into government to work on innovative projects (Park was clearly keen to get the word out on this, spending a lot of time describing each of the first five initiatives in the program one-by-one—but I have to say his enthusiasm was refreshing to hear from government). We also spoke about some surprising things he is doing—like working to end human trafficking. And yes, I also asked him about the President’s infamous line reportedly dissing entrepreneurs: “You didn’t build that.” (By the way, if you want a laugh, check out this Jon Stewart/The Daily Show take on that).

Here is my summary of the highlights of our conversation.

On Park’s view of the CTO’s role:

“Basically, I’m filling the role of tech entrepreneur-in-residence for the U.S. government. My job is to be an internal change agent.”

Park says he is working to effect change by devising initiatives that can help harness the power of innovation to foster “economic growth, job growth, and tangible improvements in how the government serves the American public.”

A big part of that, he says, will involve figuring out how the application of technology to the massive amounts of data the U.S. has accumulated on various subjects such as health, education, and energy can create new opportunities for entrepreneurs to solve big problems. (Think of how the federal government opened up the data on GPS systems—more on this below.)

On his creation of a high-tech “incubator” to do that:

“I’m running an internal incubator inside the U.S. government,” says Park. “But the products of the incubator aren’t companies, they’re startup projects within the government, to help the government become more efficient, more effective, [by] leveraging data and technology.

Those startup projects are being pursued in significant part by a group of entrepreneurs coming to Washington, DC, under the Presidential Innovation Fellows program Park’s office officially launched in late August.

“The goal of the program is to bring in amazing entrepreneurs and innovators from outside government into government—for focused tours of duty…working on six-month projects,” he says.

On the first five innovation projects:

RFP-EZ – It has not escaped Park’s notice (I doubt it has escaped anyone’s notice) that VCs and startups shy away from doing business with Uncle Sam for fear of being bogged down in red tape. This situation, says Park, “deprives those tech startups of a big market, the U.S. government, and it deprives the government of their solutions. A lot of those [startup] solutions, as you know, are better, faster, cheaper than what the big companies are doing.” The point of RFP-EZ (short, no doubt, for “request for proposal made easy”), he says, is to create and deploy a process that “makes it a lot easier for tech startups and the U.S. government to do business with each other.”

MyGov – The federal government runs about 24,000 websites right now, says Park, and guess what—they’re not organized around citizen need. “Think of it as a platform that can be used to organize government around citizens, as opposed to having citizens have to learn how government is organized,” he says.

The 20% Initiative — This is meant, basically, to move the recipients of Federal aid from cash payments to electronic payments when it comes to the last mile of development assistance overseas, says Park. With cash payments, he says, “There are all too many opportunities for waste, fraud, theft—and it’s unsafe in a lot of places to be carrying a lot of cash around.”

“It is now technologically possible to pay people via electronic phones, smart cards, etcetera,” Park says. He gives the example of a pilot program in Afghanistan whereby some police were paid via their mobile phones rather than in cash. “What happened is the police started thanking authorities for a 30 percent raise,” he says, because middlemen had previously taken out a big chunk of their pay. What makes this even more poignant, Park says, is that the “raise” made it much harder for the Taliban to pay police to change sides. “They [the Taliban] couldn’t compete. That is a story that really brought it home for me.”

Open Data Initiatives – This actually dates back to a program called the Health Data Initiative that Park helped create at the Department of Health and Human Services. This was the idea of “opening up access to … Next Page »

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