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

9/10/12Follow @bbuderi

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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 editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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