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How to Kick-Start Innovation with Free Data

Weather and GPS information stimulated the economy with new products and services. Todd Park, the U.S. chief technology officer, wants to repeat that success with the rest of the government’s data trove
Tood Park at Safety Datapalooza



U.S. Department of Labor

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Government-funded projects have yielded a wealth of information, but much of this data has historically remained locked up in difficult-to-use form. To get this data to people who might start businesses with them, the Obama administration created the position of chief technology officer.

Todd Park, the nation’s current CTO, has plenty of innovation experience. In 1997, at the age of 24, he co-founded his first start-up, called Athenahealth, which provides online data management for physicians. After momentarily retiring to focus on his family he set up two other start-ups before joining the White House team four years ago.

At a media briefing in February he talked about getting government data into the hands of entrepreneurs to spark innovation and economic growth.

[An edited transcript follows.]

You’re an entrepreneur who helped launch three successful health-tech start-ups. How did you end up working for the U.S. government?

In the summer of 2009 I got an e-mail from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) asking about my becoming its chief technology officer. My first question was: Why are you talking to me? Because I don’t know anything about government. I didn’t serve at any level. But they said, it’s actually your background as someone who’s not in government, who’s been a health-tech entrepreneur.

In March 2012 you became the chief technology officer of the U.S. What do you as the nation’s CTO?

It’s a position the president established for the first time in his first term in office. I’m the second CTO, after Aneesh Chopra.

The gist of the job is that I run an incubator inside the government. It’s not birthing companies; it’s birthing projects that all have the common denominator of unleashing the power of tech to advance the president’s programs, whether that’s job creation, economic growth, improved outcomes in health care, education, public safety or energy.

How does the incubation work?

One category of projects is the Open Data Initiative program. This set of initiatives aims to liberate data from the vaults of the government to spur entrepreneurship, innovation and scientific discovery.

A lot of data has been made public, but in unusable form, like books or pdfs or static Web sites. So the notion is to make them available as bulk downloadable files, as APIs [application protocol interfaces], so that you can actually use this stuff to create value. It was inspired by what the government did in prior eras, when it opened up weather data decades ago, making the data downloadable electronically by anyone, for free.

What happened once U.S. weather data became freely available?

Entrepreneurs picked it up and turned it into the Weather Channel, weather.com, weather apps, weather insurance--all which grew the economy, created jobs and improved our lives all at the same time.

GPS is similar story. Beginning the 1980s Pres. Ronald Reagan began the process of opening the GPS system for civilian and commercial access, which was completed under Pres. Bill Clinton. The access has spawned an incredible array of innovations by American entrepreneurs ranging from navigation systems to precision crop farming to location-based apps. In fact, it’s estimated that last year alone civilian and commercial access to GPS added $90 billion in annual value to the U.S. economy. And the number keeps growing.

So this is a play that gets the president and us very excited. Without legislation, without regulation, without incremental expenditure of taxpayer capital, you’re basically taking data—information resources that taxes have already paid for—and you’re jujitsuing it, if you will, into the public domain as fuel for entrepreneurs to pick up and turn into awesomeness.

How much data is there in the government?

The thing that’s really amazing to me is that weather and GPS are just the tip of the iceberg. The analogy we use is the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where they are in a giant warehouse wheeling in a box that has the latest treasure. That’s a really good metaphor for the data treasures that are held in the vaults of the government—data which taxpayers have paid for and which we should give back to them.

We’re focusing on six sectors in particular: health, energy, education, public safety, global development and finance.

How do you get innovators and entrepreneurs involved in the process?

We do these “Datapaloozas,” where folks get together to learn more about the data that’s available and to showcase what entrepreneurs have done with them.

Just to show you how fast this can go, we actually started this effort when I was at HHS with something called Healthy Initiative in 2010. We kicked it off by inviting 45 very skeptical entrepreneurs into a room and saying, “Here’s a bunch of data we have. What do you think?” Ninety days later 20-plus new innovations were showcased. It not only inspired entrepreneurs to do innovations of their own but also inspired people who own data inside the government to realize the value of putting it out there.

Two years later in June 2012 we had a Health Datapalooza that drew 1,600 entrepreneurs—and several hundred entrepreneurs who were angry they couldn’t get in.

What were some of the products that were showcased at the Health Datapalooza?

Two hundred and thirty–plus companies had gone through an American Idol–style contest for the right to present. Most of these companies have been founded in the last 18 to 24 months, all leveraging open data to actually do something remarkable in health care.

An example is Pete Hudson, who started a company called iTriage. The mobile app took a bunch of data around where all the doctors are, like GPS for health care providers. As a user, you can punch in your symptoms and it tells you based on the GPS and the data you punched in who the best local providers are that can help you. It’s been downloaded nine million times and has literally saved people’s lives.

Do you keep track of how the data is used?

No. The data is completely free, there are no conditions, there are no agreements to sign, no registration process—you just take it and do amazing things with it.

One example is Google. I remember Bryan Sivak, my successor at as CTO at HHS, called me one day and said, “Go to Google, and type in ‘aspirin.’ It’ll make you really happy.” I did, and then—boom!—it pops up on the right-hand side next to the search results, a whole bunch of government-sourced scientific data about aspirin. Google has done it for every single drug, leveraging our national medical API’s.

Best of all, I had no idea they were doing it. All great innovation ecosystems are chaotic, self-propelled and out of control. And I think we’re getting to that point where open-data ecosystems are at that happy place.

You started another program, called the Presidential Innovation Fellows. What is that about?

It allows us to bring in amazing people from the outside to complement the people on the inside. They operate in start-up mode: small, agile teams to come up with a minimal viable product and then engage with the customer as soon as they can.

What were some of the innovations that have come out of the fellowship program?

One was called Blue Button for America, which is all about enabling Americans to securely download their own heath information wherever they might be. There is also a project called MyUSA, which deals with the fact we have 24,000 Web sites across the U.S. government—our Web presence is organized the way the government is organized, which is to say incomprehensible. So MyUSA has built a prototype platform that helps you access and use the services and information.

Overall, how would you describe the release of data?

It’s an instantiation of one of our favorite laws of the universe, called Joy’s Law. From Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, who famously said, “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people in the world work for somebody else.”

The whole idea behind open data is to say, look, we don’t know anything about the data. We don’t have the money or the expertise to do anything, so why don’t we just open it up to the people who paid for it already, and they will invent all kinds of things.

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