Will Geeks Save the World?

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Will Geeks Save the World?

By Aneesh Chopra and Nick Sinai
Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellows

A famous TIME magazine article in the 1990’s featured a cover with Bob Rubin, Alan Greenspan, and Larry Summers as “the committee to save the world” and inspired the next generation of economists to pursue public service as a means to solve big problems.

More recently, a TIME article in 2014 has Todd Park, Ryan Panchadsaram, and Mikey Dickerson on the cover, as part of the team that saved Healthcare.gov. The article, “Code Red,” is the dramatic story of the rescue that fixed a signature part of President Obama’s legacy.

The yet untold story is how that team — and many others — are working to fundamentally change how the American government delivers services digitally. Given those dueling covers, 15 years apart, it is only fair to ask, will a committee of geeks save the world?

From our experience, we’d argue that geeks, entrepreneurs, and innovators are changing the world from both inside and outside of government. We saw it first hand at last week’s Harvard Kennedy School’s Public Service Week, through a series of events on how data, tech, and innovation are solving problems and advancing the common good.

We are passionate about how new talent is shifting the way government approaches problems; Aneesh’s podcast last week and his recent book provide a series of inspirational case studies. The wave of “lean startups” and open innovation in the federal government is leading to a newfound agility and focus not normally associated with government.

The panel on Data & Technology in Government emphasized these opportunities through the all-star line up of Todd Park, White House Technology Advisor and former US CTO; Lynn Overmann, Deputy Chief Data Officer, U.S. Department of Commerce; and newly named U.S. Chief Data Scientist and Deputy CTO DJ Patil.

The panel spoke passionately about how opening up government data has the potential to transform industries like healthcare, and how new efforts like the U.S. Digital Service and 18F are remaking government digital services. Todd, DJ, and Lynn asked the Harvard University and Boston tech community to consider public service — especially those with tech, innovation, and design skills. Later that evening, Shorenstein Center Director Alex Jones said that the group’s inspirational call to public service for the tech industry reminds him of JFK’s iconic “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.

Opening up data to spur private sector innovation — part of what Tim O’Reilly calls “government as a platform” — was one of the major themes of the week. We convened executive roundtables on Monday and Tuesday on the subject of opening up skills data and making health data more interoperable and accessible, held a roundtable at the Berkman Center about personal data portability on Wednesday, guest lectured at MIT on Thursday, and met individually with students and faculty throughout the week.

Thursday, we convened the Boston area tech and innovation community with Commerce Under Secretary Mark Doms, Deputy Chief Data Officer Lynn Overmann, and US Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil. Tech executives validated Secretary Pritzker’s Open Data agenda and reiterated the creative ways they put data to use in their products and services. The primary message from the tech community was to encourage government to double down on making data responsibly available to the public, including making more real-time information open and usable.

Friday, for the students of Harvard Kennedy and Business Schools, with HBS Professor Aaron Chatterji, we hosted a panel of five CEOs and tech executives to highlight companies that use government data, and to showcase the persistence and creativity of entrepreneurs. The companies were:

  • BillGuard, a personal finance app protecting consumers from deceptive practices;
  • CloudLock, a company that protects data in the cloud;
  • Everstring, a marketing intelligence firm using predictive analytics and big data;
  • Hipcamp, a startup making it easier to discover and book public camping sites; and
  • Zillow, a real estate media company helping consumers make decisions about their next home.

We finished the week by participating in the HKS Technology Summit. The event brought together students, faculty, staff, and administration to brainstorm ways to improve technology offerings at the Kennedy School. Building off a Tech4Change survey that indicated substantial student demand, Summit participants workshopped specific short-term and long-term actions to ensure the Kennedy School seizes the opportunity to train technically literate 21st century government leaders.

It was an honor to be part of Public Service Week at the Kennedy School, and we are excited about the momentum building for tech, data and innovation to be an integral part of the curriculum, as the school trains the next great public-sector entrepreneurs. As Todd Park has said “don’t think of government as a monolithic thing — think of it as an industry to be disrupted!” Uncle Sam needs more geeks.

Aneesh Chopra and Nick Sinai
Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellows
Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy
Harvard Kennedy School

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