National Press Club

Obama’s First CTO Pushes Using Government Data to Solve Problems

July 23, 2014 | By Heather Forsgren Weaver | HeatherForsgrenWeaver@gmail.com

Steven Olikara, president of the Millennial Action Project and NPC Events Committee member, right, interviews Aneesh Chopra, former chief technology officer of the United States, about his book, "Innovative State" at the National Press Club July 22, 2014.

Steven Olikara, president of the Millennial Action Project and NPC Events Committee member, right, interviews Aneesh Chopra, former chief technology officer of the United States, about his book, "Innovative State" at the National Press Club July 22, 2014.

Photo/Image: Millennial Access Project

The weather industry is a $5 billion undertaking but “the source data is all the same,” Aneesh Chopra, former and first chief technology officer for the Obama administration, told a National Press Club audience July 22.

The source data that is commercialized and used in a variety of ways, from news to websites to apps, comes from the government. The use of weather data is just one example that Chopra related from his book, Innovative State.

While he was the nation’s first CTO, the United States has had a “pioneering government” since its founding, Chopra said. The very idea of a republic was new, he added.

Weather data that now generates so much revenue for the economy was first collected and distributed by one of the founders of the republic, Thomas Jefferson, who took weather measurements twice daily. Data gathered by the Lewis and Clark expedition was publicly released, one of the conditions Jefferson set when he dispatched Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their mission to map the route to the Pacific Ocean, Chopra said.

Chopra called this idea of making publicly available the data collected by the government, “the spirit of Jefferson.”

“That spirit, if applied across all agencies of the government, can unlock new products and services akin to the portfolio of products and services that have been built around weather data for each of the areas where our country needs help –- energy data, health data and so forth,” Chopra said.

One of the founding technologies commercialized by IBM was actually developed for the 1870 census after it was estimated to take 14 years to complete the decadal record due to the influx of immigrants, Chopra said.

Following Chopra’s presentation, Steven Olikara, a member of the Events Committee, interviewed him.

“For a long period of time in the 20th Century, the federal government was really leading the private sector in innovation and the striking example would be in the 1960’s, when we had something like 11 or 12 percent of our federal budget going into [research and development], a major portion of that going into space exploration. Fast forward to today, where R&D is something like less than 4 percent of the federal budget,” Olikara said. “Should we be spending more or less on R&D?”

Chopra’s reply was simply, “more.”

Chopra served in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2012. He was the fourth Secretary of Technology for the Commonwealth of Virginia. He is now co-founder and executive vice president of Hunch Analytics, a technology firm that focuses on improving productivity in the public sector by using data.

NPC President Myron Belkind presented the traditional NPC mug to Chopra. Anthony Shop, a member of the board of governors, emceed the program.

After the event, Chopra signed copies of his book, which were sold to raise money for the Club's National Journalism Institute. All of the books ordered for the event sold, Shop said.