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 machine readable information from HHS on everything from the quality of hospitals to drug information collected by the FDA to the latest and greatest medical knowledge about asthma,” he says, in much the same way the government had previously opened up weather and GPS data, creating opportunities for entrepreneurs to build new businesses. For example, HHS recently held a “datapalooza” in which 242 companies competed to showcase products based on health-related data released by the government.

“What we are doing with the Open Data Initiatives program is cloning the Health Data Initiative,” Park says, by launching similar efforts in safety, education, energy, global development, the non-profit sector, and finance. In all these cases, he says, “We are opening up government information resources in machine readable form…with the goal of triggering a rising tide of innovation in which entrepreneurs utilize our data as free fuel to create new products and services that help improve the lives of Americans and that contribute to economic growth and create jobs at the same time.”

Blue Button for America – This is the expansion of an initiative the Department of Veterans Affairs launched about two years ago in partnership with the Defense Department and Medicare, says Park. “What it is, is the ability for a veteran or a member of our military or a Medicare beneficiary to go to a secure website and hit a blue button and download an electronic copy of their own health information.” The program has been wildly successful, he says. The initial target was 25,000 users. “We just passed the one million user mark.” Now, under the Innovation Fellows program, the goal is to work with insurance carriers and expand this to millions of additional Americans, he says, and “also to spread the word to entrepreneurs and innovators that there’s a big opportunity to build tools and services into which patients can upload their data securely and manage their health and healthcare better with it.”

I have to admit these all sound pretty worthwhile. You can find out a bit more about these initiatives, and a list of the Presidential Innovation Fellows behind each one, here. It will be interesting to see if six-month stints can provide the “oomph” to overcome government lethargy and get something done—and what the Fellows say about trying to make an impact in DC.

On government agencies’ progress toward complying with President Obama’s May 23 executive order on “Building a 21st Century Digital Government:”

Progress is being made, and the Innovation Fellows program initiatives described above should accelerate that progress, says Park. “One core tenet of the Digital Government strategy is the government needs to make its data open and machine readable as a default state. That fits hand in glove with the Open Data Initiatives program.”

The Digital Government strategy also seeks to make Uncle Sam more citizen-centric, and MyGov is a flagship program on that front, while RFP-EZ tackles the goal of helping government buy smarter, he says.

“So you have the Digital Government strategy, which lays out these three broad strategic goals and associated policy actions, and then you have these five projects that the Presidential Innovation Fellows will help us execute that will help us advance the ball with respect to those strategic goals in tangible ways very rapidly.”

Adds Park, “Each of those five projects is actually sponsored and funded by an agency in the U.S. government. I don’t have my own budget. Basically, it’s the perfect position for a change agent to be in, because essentially what happens is that you pick the projects that can do the best job of advancing the President’s priorities and work closely with teams of agencies and external innovators to execute those projects.”

Does he get involved in patent reform and intellectual property issues?

No, not directly.

On one area you wouldn’t think he would be involved in, but he is—human trafficking:

“Eighty percent of my job is essentially running this virtual incubator inside the government—startup projects, initiatives. The other 20 percent of my time is functioning as a senior advisor on issues where I can be helpful. What is actually happening, which is very interesting, is I tend to be called into situations where people are trying to figure out how technology and data can be leveraged to advance a key goal.”

One area where that is happening is fighting human trafficking. “We are trying to end the trafficking of children in the United States. So I was asked to scrub in on that and figure out how data and tech can be used to help do that.” (I asked on follow up for more on this intriguing effort, but was told by a spokesman that it’s too early to say anything more.)

On “You didn’t build that”:

As mentioned above, I had to ask Park—as an inveterate, serial entrepreneur—what he made of the President’s recent, much-debated remark. I give him credit for taking on the question and not deferring, and in truth his answer lined up with the impression I had from actually watching the President:

“What he meant was of course entrepreneurs build their businesses, and of course government can play an important role in contributing to the creation of the conditions that enable entrepreneurs to actually thrive–as it did, for example, through its facilitating the development of the Internet.”

A bit more on how open data from government fits into the competitive landscape and can spur economic growth:

“The projects are meant to improve our competiveness as a country. If you take open data, it is a huge untapped resource. Without regulation, without new expenditure, we can jujitsu that data into the public domain. Entrepreneurs can tap into what’s effectively a new national resource that can then fuel the creation of new companies, new products, and jobs, and [create] significant tangible improvements in all of our lives.”

Bob is Xconomy's founder and chairman. You can email him at bbuderi@xconomy.com. Follow @bbuderi

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