Innovators: Aneesh Chopra says open data is key if government wants to solve big problems


Aneesh Chopra, former chief technical officer of the United States. (Illustration by Lennart Andresen)

Aneesh Chopra become the nation’s first chief technology officer under President Obama, a position that oversaw a series of federal initiatives to make government data more accessible to the private sector and general public. That experience serves as the backbone of Chopra’s recently released book, “Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government.” In the treatise, Chopra argues that a more open government, derived chiefly from greater transparency and the use of cutting-edge technology, will be better equipped to tackle such vexing challenges as health care, education and economic development.

What led you to write this book?

■ I wanted to articulate what I hoped was a new way of solving problems that I thought would have greater impact as part of the public dialogue. If you recall I ran for lieutenant governor of Virginia and part of what I proposed on the campaign trail was a new approach to problem solving that was rooted in this bipartisan spirit.

These [technological] tools that have been effective in the private sector have been authorized in a bipartisan way to be utilized in a public sector.

What areas hold the biggest opportunity for the government to use technology to solve problems?

■ The three sectors of the economy that need the help the most are health care, education and energy. All three have the same flavor, opening up data to the American people. At the same time, all three of these sectors are going through changes in their business model.

In health care, it’s opening up health data to the customer. We’ve seen progress here … but there’s more work to be done. In the case of education, it’s opening more education data back to the student. In energy, ... data that helps the public to consume less energy while living a comfortable life may be one of the most impactful ways to meet the EPA goals [for reducing carbon dioxide emissions].

The bungled roll out of HealthCare.gov has been well documented. What stands out to you as a key lesson for the government and the private sector to learn from that experience?

■ The No. 1 lesson is we have to tackle is fixing the procurement system.

If you do a fair and open competition, and you pick something, you know the first thing that’s going to happen is someone’s going to protest. You have to factor that into your time cycle.

Procurement reform is the No. 1 takeaway and I'm confident it will get done and it will get done hopefully in a bipartisan way.

Is the first step to reform eliminating procurement protests?

■ Life is generally about balance. There are obviously circumstances under which protesting is warranted ... but you want to have more skin in the game. Protesting for no reason as part of a way of doing business isn’t sustainable, nor do I think is it the right thing. There has to be a better way.

In general, lowering the barriers to entry and increasing the capacity of the system to root out mistakes, errors or outright fraud, those have to be the guiding principles. Are there people in the U.S. who could have helped build HealthCare.gov in a more cost effective manner, and with greater agility and responsibility? I’m pretty sure the answer would be yes.

How does government balance technology and open data with other tenants of democracy, such as privacy and civil liberties?

■ The first thing we do is substantiate President Obama’s “Privacy Bill of Rights” into law. The main point of the privacy report is that the world of notice and consent to collect data is no longer sufficient to truly protect people’s privacy.

What you want to do is empower people to take control of the data. If we created more capacity for individuals to influence the use of their data both in the public sector and private sector, I believe we would be able to do more, not less, with the power of big data.

To my point of view, Medicare is giving people the ability to download all the information Medicare has on them, then it’s the individual’s right to take that data and share it with others. Sometimes the best privacy protection is to empower people with the data directly or with permission to have some control over the data.

What kinds of technology will have the greatest impact on how the government functions in the next few years?

■ I think it’s the proliferation of application programming interfaces, APIs, that dramatically lowers the barrier to information sharing. That’s technology that has been widely adopted in the private sector. Walgreens, for example, opened up APIs so there can literally be dozens of partners that help to build their mobile experience for end users.

I call this force multiplying because not every app has to be built by the government. Rather, through these APIs, more and more apps can be built by the nonprofit and social sectors. Here’s a simple example: The Department of Health and Human Services now publishes more and more data through these APIs, and start-ups like iTriage, [which helps patients identify care locations based on their symptoms], can access the inventory of low-cost clinics in America and incorporate that database into their app to help patients avoid the [emergency room], if possible.

As we know, there is a stable of contractors who sell technology to the government. Are these the same companies that will provide the innovative technology you discuss in your book?

■ I believe they have a very important role to play, but it’s up to them to decide if they want to play. If I were a government contractor, I would think about three things:

One, how can I compete and win in a more open environment? If in more and more procurements ... I’m being paid for proving I can get something done, I need to prepare for that future and figure out if I can be successful.

Two, I have to envision a world where the barriers to entry might fall. If you think about RFP-EZ, [a Web site for small businesses to more easily bid on government work], ... hundreds of companies that have no prior experience with the government can now take part in the process. Prepare for a more competitive marketplace.

The third opportunity is to think beyond the government. Many of these government contractors are actually in possession of data that they were contracted to build and use and support. The re-use of that data could be the next billion-dollar company.

You’re the co-founder of Arlington-based Hunch Analytics. What can you tell us about that venture at this point?

I’m laser-focused on the application of data analytics in the health and education markets, powered in part by much of the open data I reference in the book and see as critical to the future. I’m recruiting talent right now who share this mission orientation and passion, [and] who are aware of and understand these new technologies.

It’s important to note I will not be selling to the government. Mine is a private sector focus. We are hard at work on three projects, two in health care and one in skills/education, that I am hoping will make a big impact in the coming months and years.

What are those projects?

That’s what I’m not ready to say.

Meet “Innovators,” a biweekly series showcasing interesting ideas from people around the Washington area who work in business, technology and policy. Know someone with an idea or innovation worth sharing? Tell us about them at steven.overly@washpost.com.

THE BIG IDEA

In his new book, “Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government,” the nation’s first chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra, argues that a more open and transparent government can better tackle systemic issues, such as health care and economic development.

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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