The U.S. government and tech start-ups haven't always gotten along over the past couple of decades.
At Tuesday evening's New York Tech Meetup, U.S. chief technology officer Todd Park laid out the Obama administration's plans to change that.
Park is no stranger to the tech scene. Before heading to Washington, he co-founded two health IT companies, athenahealth and CastLight Health. In 2009, he was appointed the CTO of the Department of Health and Human Services. He became U.S. CTO in March, after his predecessor, Aneesh Chopra, stepped down. Believe it or not, Park told the audience at the Tech Meetup, he finds his time in Washington even more stimulating than helming two start-ups.
"The most exciting and entrepreneurial experience I've ever had has been working in the U.S. government for the past three years," he said. "I've been functioning as a tech entrepreneur-in-residence inside the government."
Much of Park's work involves shape five projects to harness technology to improve government services, which he described at the Tech Meetup. He also encouraged attendees to contribute to the work begun by the White House's Presidential Innovation Fellows, a group of 18 selected in August to dedicate six months to the government's tech projects.
The five projects include the following:
- The Open Data Initiative, an effort to make government data machine-readable and accessible to all citizens.
- RFP-EZ, a campaign to streamline the contracting process for tech start-ups so that they can more easily sell to the government. The federal IT market, Park noted, is about $80 billion.
- MyGov, a system that will enable citizens to access government services more easily online.
- Better Than Cash (formerly the 20% Initiative), a program to introduce electronic and mobile payment systems to developing countries to facilitate the distribution of aid resources.
- Blue Button for America, an effort to boost the portability of health data by enabling citizens to download their information online.
The government's efforts to become tech-savvy aren't new, Park noted. The Open Data Initiative, for instance, builds upon programs from the 1970s and 1980s to make weather and GPS data available to the public. That data, of course, has helped fuel several business, ranging from the Weather Channel to Foursquare. But Park envisions government data enabling innovation across a much broader range of industries, from health to education to security.
"Weather and GPS are just the tip of the iceberg," Park said.
Some of the government's tech projects, Park noted, are already making a tangible impact. The Better than Cash program was initially piloted two years by USAID in Afghanistan's Helmand province. Under the pilot, 1,000 members of the Afghan national police were paid by phone. Whereas with cash payments, the police often had their salaries skimmed by middlemen, the mobile payments allowed them to keep their full pay--resulting in an effective 30% raise.
The Better than Cash, as a result, could bode well for national security efforts. In the past, he said, members of the national police were enticed to join the Taliban, which offered higher pay--only the Taliban couldn't match the full salaries offered through mobile payments.
"It means fewer Taliban and more Afghan national police, which means more American men and women come home," Park said.