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.”