Aneesh Chopra, Obama’s Chief Technology Officer, Talks About Health IT Geek Squads, Entrepreneurship Prizes, and “Data as a Policy Lever”

10/7/10Follow @wroush

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“I’ve quit my day job, and I’m going full force on this program, because I think there is a market opportunity to help families with nutrition planning.” So he’s an example, and there were probably three or four in the winning categories where they had an explicit commercialization plan. They dabbled in this because they were keen to know what it was all about, were excited about the prospects, and now have decided to become entrepreneurs.

So part of the Challenge.gov concept, part of our prize policy, is not only to tap into the creativity of the American people to help solve national problems, but to inspire them to be entrepreneurs so they can go off and build new businesses of value and succeed in the economy writ large. That’s what the President said when he signed the small business bill, saying, “Look, the entrepreneurs, the startups, they are the engines of economic growth in this country, so if we can play a modest part from an open government standpoint–releasing information, commercializing that, and encouraging folks to create value—then we are in a great spot.”

I just met this dude sitting over there. [Chopra was referring to Nick Desai, CEO of Global Fitness Media, a Los Angeles company that has built an online nutrition app called GoodFoodNearYou.com.] He doesn’t have a government application, but he’s actually doing the reverse. We passed a law in health reform that requires restaurants to publish their menus from a nutritional standpoint. Well, he had already been partnering with that. He thinks of that data as liquidity to feed his mobile app that will help you find local food options that are healthier for you. It was a great story.

Is this guy some kind of PhD physics genius? I have no idea. The point is, we have created a policy framework that says this data has value. He is an entrepreneur, and he’s finding a way to make not only the data itself have value but to build on top of that data. That data becomes infrastructure for the 21st century economy. And I think that is the spirit of a lot of this. A lot of what we do on the technology side of the President’s administration is to think about transparency and data as a policy lever itself.

My favorite example was—I have a three-and-a-half year old and a one-and-a-half year old. So, you would not know this—have you ever put in a car seat?

X: My brother has young children, so I’ve struggled with car seats, yes.

AC: It sucks! You stick your knee in it. You’ve got to push it around. Argh! Who would have known that the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration has a database of the ease of installation of every car seat sold in America. It sat in a file cabinet. We have released that data, and I’m hopeful some entrepreneur will grab it and build an app that will help you choose a product that is easier to install.

X: Something like “BestBabyCarSeat.com.”

AC: I don’t know, why not? That’s the point. In small and in big ways, we think we can tap into this creativity and make a big difference.

X: Last question. You mentioned Challenge.gov and there’s obviously a lot of excitement generated by big prize competitions like the X Prize.

AC: Yes, but this little one—Apps for Healthy Kids—40,000 people registered their support. There were a hundred-plus applications of which 95 were … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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