Innovation Hub: Techies Fix Government

No one had heard of Mike Krieger when he responded to a call to organize San Francisco’s crime data.

He was in his early 20s, working on his coding, and he created an app to help visitors and city-dwellers alike know when they had entered a high-crime area.

A few years later, Krieger and a partner sold their startup, Instagram, to Facebook for a billion dollars.

Aneesh Chopra (pictured), America’s first CTO, argues that fixing government should involve more people like Krieger: those willing to devote time and techie know-how to improving their city, state, or country.

But how many of us will really follow Krieger’s lead? Here’s what Chopra told me.

[This interview has been edited and condensed. For the full conversation, visit innovationhub.org.]

Kara Miller: Do you get the sense that young people actually want to help government? Is government something they believe in enough to sacrifice their time?

Aneesh Chopra: It’s actually bigger than just young people. I think there’s a yearning in this country. We’ve seen this under Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and JFK. In fact, Roosevelt said that the folks who wanted to come work for him for a dollar a year didn’t even vote for him. Now, the good news about an innovative state is that it’s not necessarily a full-time proposition.

Here’s an example. Data from the Department of Transportation showed that half of people with infant car seats have them improperly installed. Over a weekend, an entrepreneur built a mobile app that allowed parents to find the nearest place where car seats could be reviewed for proper installation.

KM: What’s an area of government where you think tech is particularly needed?

AC: Health care. If we could get routed to the right place at the right time and get the right level of care, we would save a third of the nation’s health care dollars. In the same way that Amazon provides you recommendations for the books you might read, you could imagine a similar engine recommending that you seek care in this setting and at this time if you want to get that particular discomfort addressed.

KM: What do people say to you when you travel around and tell people that you served as America’s CTO? They must point to healthcare.gov and problems with the Veterans Affairs and ask whether technology and government are compatible.

AC: There’s a collective sense of sadness when we can’t make the basic operations of government work for the people that we intend to serve. We will have more failures. These are inevitable as you move a large organization into the 21st century. But there are many everyday Americans who just want to contribute.

I was on a panel with Sheryl Sandberg, and she said while Facebook then had 2,500 employees, 30,000 people had the title of Facebook developer. Because Facebook opened up its developer platform, people went off and did stuff on their own. In government, we need a similar approach.

Kara Miller is the host of “Innovation Hub,” a national radio program that features the thinkers, researchers, and visionaries who are crafting the future. She is based at WGBH Radio in Boston. Follow @IHubRadio

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