White House rallies geeks with Google+ Hangouts

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the name of the White House’s Google+ Hangout. It was “We the Geeks,” not “We are the Geeks.” This version has been corrected.


Brittany Wenger, 17 of Bradenton, Fla., explains her research to President Obama at the White House Science Fair on April 22, 2013. (Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The White House is starting to geek out.

We already knew Barack Obama was the “first nerd president,” as comedian John Hodgman dubbed him in 2009. Earlier this spring, he eagerly checked out a flask containing a new breed of algae at the White House Science Fair. The president swings by Silicon Valley frequently — he’s headed there again next week — and extols high-tech entrepreneurs on a regular basis.

But few events scream nerdfest louder than a 50-minute Google+ Hangout devoted to asteroids and entitled “We the Geeks,” which took place Friday. And while the chat was full of quirky moments — Bill Nye the Science Guy yelled that space exploration is “changing the world” on two occasions — it had a serious purpose: rallying an army of geeks to Obama’s side.

The episode was in keeping with a broader administration effort to bring tech-savvy Americans into the federal government while also using government data to help the private sector.

”The whole idea is to connect people inside the building to people outside the building who are passionate about technology,” said Macon Phillips, White House director of digital strategy. “Some of the most exciting recent innovations in the private sector have been done by geeks. That excitement and interest can benefit government.”

Forging a closer tie between the high-tech community and federal agencies is also a natural political move for Obama, who has received generous financial support from the technology sector and has aggressively used social media tools to further his own goals.

Employees in the computer and electronic industry gave nearly $7.8 million to Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with bundlers from Silicon Valley steering at least $550,000 to the campaign. On Thursday, Obama will headline a $32,400-per-
person fundraiser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at the Portola Valley, Calif., home of venture capitalist Vinod Khosla and his wife, Neeru.

U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park has launched the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which brings high-tech experts into the government for six to 12 months to work with officials in different agencies to solve particular technological challenges. The first class of fellows numbered 18, but the White House plans to increase the number significantly in the second round to meet growing demand.

The administration has also sought to make federal data sets more widely available, in events that Park dubs “datapaloozas.”

“I think that’s why people show up, they think the Red Hot Chili Peppers are going to be there,” Phillips said, referring to the annual Lollapalooza music festival.

Such data sharing has allowed an Arlington-based company, Opower, to market its energy-
efficiency services to utility customers. A Denver-based firm called iTriage developed an app that helps patients identify their symptoms and reach a doctor.

“It isn’t just about people with White House badges,” Phillips said. “This is only going to work if we excite the private sector.”

Wade Randlett, a renewable energy entrepreneur and Obama bundler, said the work the White House is doing is likely to persist long after the president leaves office.

“I think they are right that pushing public data outside of government inherently reforms government,” Randlett said. “Once they let the ‘data genie’ out, it will be very hard to put back in the bottle even after they are gone.”

Ann Cairns, director of strategic communication and outreach for the American Geophysical Union, welcomed the administration’s efforts. “We’re happy to see them reaching out more,” she said. “We’re all experimenting a little bit. It’s important to reach people active in social media.”

Making the pitch, however, means meeting the geeks where they are. It seems to come naturally to Obama, who flashed a Vulcan greeting during the White House Correspondents Dinner without blushing and talked about curbing patent trolls and learning code in high school during a Feb. 14 Google+ Hangout.

On May 16, the White House launched “We the Geeks,” a series of Google+ Hangouts aimed at engaging science and tech enthusiasts across the country. The events grew out of earlier gatherings such as a March 28 Google+ discussion, when an 11-year-old nicknamed Super Awesome Sylvia and other experts discussed robots, 3-D printing and other elements of the “maker movement.”

On Friday, the topic was asteroids, marking the day when the massive asteroid 1998 QE2 passed within about 3.6 million miles of Earth. Cristin Dorgelo from the Office of Science and Technology Policy moderated a freewheeling discussion with several space experts, including Nye, former astronaut Ed Lu and NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver.

The group chatted about the explosive impact of asteroids, their appearance (“like black charcoal,” Lu said) and their potential value as a source of resources for humans. Peter Diamandis, co-founder of the firm Planetary Resources, said a single asteroid can hold a trillion gallons of water.

The participants also made multiple references to smartphones, frequently referred to things as “cool” and “awesome,” and discussed all the reasons why the Earth won’t be obliterated in the near future.

Garver, who noted that NASA had been tracking QE2 since 1998, exclaimed at one point, “We’re saving the world!”

Brian Vastag contributed to this report.

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